Here's what I have to say: There are thousands of Jeep purists. Several thousand people want hardcore no-frills Jeeps. There are millions of car buyers each year. Several million people want more civilized vehicles. Even if every Jeep purist was in the market to spend $25-40,000 on a new vehicle, there wouldn't be enough of you to justify the cost of developing a Jeep just for you. That didn't stop Jeep from trying- the JK's base model has the minimum number of airbags allowed, manual windows and locks, no standard air conditioning, and a manual transmission. The only plastic body parts are the fender flares and lights. It still sits on solid axles, it still has standard part-time 2-speed 4WD, it still has a removable top and doors, a windshield that folds down, a full size spare, and an air intake that's as high as it could possibly be in the vehicle. It even makes more power than any CJ-style Jeep ever has before. (285hp/270lbft as standard equipment! The 4.0 ain't got nothing on that!) Jeep then took that basic vehicle and added things to it to make it appealing to the mass market, like power locks and windows, an automatic transmission, comfortable leather seats, A/C, infotainment, even a 4-door model. The JK and JKU are together 1/7th of Chrysler's total sales volume.
But that basic JK is all Chrysler can afford to offer the Jeep purist today. Developing a new vehicle is very expensive. Billions of dollars. So they have to sell millions of vehicles to break even, let alone profit. Even the JK wasn't profitable for a few years after it went into production. And so, if Jeep wants to remain relevant, they have to make cars that will sell on the mass market, not just for the few purists who can afford a new one. Your average buyer expects a few things that your average Jeep purist doesn't: A/C, comfort, on-road handling, acceptable fuel economy, et cetera. If Jeep doesn't offer that, these buyers will find someone else who does. And if they're not buying new Jeeps, Jeep doesn't make enough money to stay in business. So, Jeep has to cater to those wishes as best it can, while staying within its own DNA (which is not, I might add, stripped-out basics, but rather go-anywhere, do-anything) or else disappear. If Jeep only made vehicles for the purist, Jeep wouldn't be around anymore and that'd just suck for everyone here. I'd rather have Jeep make aerodynamic vehicles that can go offroad if asked, than not make vehicles at all. They are, after all, the American legend. Be a damn shame if they disappeared.
So with that said, aerodynamics are important- even key to fuel economy. The WK2 has better fuel economy than the ZJ despite packing on an extra 1000lbs, because of 2 things: more efficient engines and superior aerodynamics. The drag coefficient of the ZJ is .46, whereas the WK2's is .37. That's significant. The WK2 also has a more efficient set of engines that do more with less. Sorry to say, the 4.0 was never a powerful or efficient engine. It's just unacceptable by today's standards. It's also really long and difficult to package, given modern regulations for safety and such. As such, the ZJ scores 15mpg on Fuelly, whereas the WK2 hovers between 18 and 19mpg. That's real-world scores, not EPA dyno BS. 1000lbs and 100hp added and it still gains MPG. Even the Wrangler has improved from 14mpg in 1990 to 17mpg now, despite being bigger and heavier, because it's more efficient and aerodynamic.
Now, the Wrangler will always be the "pure" Jeep. It'll always be the Jeep-shaped solid-axle mobile with the top that comes off and the comparatively bad aerodynamics. Jeep's not dumb enough to ruin that. But the rest of the line has to have appeal to the mass market for reasons that the mass market wants. So, they'll have to have better aerodynamics and creature comforts. Again, better that than no Jeep. If it has a vertical slat grille and "Jeep" emblazoned proudly on its hood, it's a Jeep to me, and I'm happy enough with the line Jeep has built. It makes economic sense to me.
1997 Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition
1998 Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited
FUEL ECONOMY IS FOR LOSERS