DETROIT – FCA designers had a lot of history to draw on when creating the new ’18 Jeep Wrangler.

The vehicle has been around for 77 years and has had six distinct generations: the 1941 MB, the 1954 CJ5, the 1987 YJ, the 1997 TJ, the 2007 TK and the new-generation JL.

But FCA’s Chris Benjamin says the Wrangler’s design team wanted to give a nod to the past, while acknowledging the vehicle exists in a modern world.

“As we began sketching on the Wrangler, we wanted to keep two words in mind: refined and authentic,” Benjamin, head of Jeep and utility-vehicle interior design at FCA, tells attendees during his keynote speech here today at the 2018 WardsAuto Interiors conference.

“When we add the new features, the new touches, the new luxury things that everyone expects in a modern-day vehicle, we wanted to make sure that it was authentically Wrangler,” says Benjamin, a graduate of Miami’s prestigious Design and Architecture Senior High and Detroit’s College for Creative Studies and spent time at BMW, Mercedes and Volvo design studios before joining FCA five years ago.

The three oldest generations of Wrangler all had a strong horizontal, slim-and-wide look in their instrument panels that Jeep designers wanted to retain, Benjamin says. He notes more recent generations of the Wrangler had taller center stacks due to the profusion of technology and features in modern automobiles.

So Jeep’s design team used the MB’s “confident lines” that encapsulate those, as well as the CJ5’s trapezoidal surfacing in crafting the new ’18 Wrangler JL’s IP.

“(I like) where things came together and where surfaces ended,” Benjamin says of the Wrangler CJ5 interior.

Lastly, circular elements aligned on a single line are a direct nod to the Wrangler YJ’s interior.

“All those features are not done in a retro way, but are done looking at the future, with respect to the past,” Benjamin says.

As it does with many of its vehicles, the Wrangler has a lot of “Easter eggs” inside. In the new Wrangler’s case, these are details that give a nod to its past.

“The Y-shaped motif in the steering wheel harkens back to the Willys (Jeep), (as does) the Willys silhouette in the center of the shifter,” the designer says. “All those little Easter eggs that we put into the vehicles are what we know the customers have come to love and enjoy.”

In a nod to making it the most refined Wrangler ever, Benjamin points out there are real metal-plated switches and real screws on the new Jeep’s center stack.

Reflecting its life in the modern world, the Jeep design team shaped the new SUV’s cupholders to fit smartphones, as it knows vehicle owners and occupants like to drop them there, as well as added dual USB ports to the backseat.

Benjamin isn’t fearful of the day when the Wrangler may not have a steering wheel or instrument panel. An autonomous Wrangler may spur more creativity and a chance for interiors to really shine, he says.

“You’re still creating forms, you’re still creating shapes,” he says. “If there’s no steering wheel, if you’ve got occupants that are not focused on driving, guess what they are focused on? If it’s not the phone in front of them or the tablet or whatever it is, then they’re going to be more focused on the sculpture they see.

“In that case, I think there’s more work for us (as designers) to do because people are going to be more discerning of what they’re actually looking at,” Benjamin continues.

While he doesn’t fear designing for AVs, he does acknowledge a few design trends he’s seen in AV concepts that bug him.

The AV as a window-less cube, oftentimes the brainchild of student designers, is one of them.

He also implies AV design isn’t considering that safety will be a foremost concern for users.

“Probably even more so (than today) because everyone is going to be even more critical of the machine,” he says, referencing fears that computer-controlled AVs are not as trustworthy as human-driven vehicles.

Another? “My favorite thing is that, somehow, everyone thinks that autonomous cars are suddenly going to be bigger than cars are today, because you see all these autonomous concepts and there’s like five people and they’re all sitting around a campfire inside the car. That’s just impossible unless all of our cars in the future are the size of city buses.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com