An icon returns, repositioned: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

June 25, 2010, 8:25 PM UTC

Chrysler showed the latest iteration of its flagship vehicle to its northeast dealers and the media on Thursday at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The Grand Cherokee lives up to its advance notices. It is based on components from the Mercedes-Benz ML, so you know it is solid. The wheelbase has been stretched five inches so there is more room in the backseat. And it features a new V-6 engine that puts out more power and gets better mileage.

The Grand Cherokee also bristles with new off-road gadgets, like a choice of four-wheel drive systems, a feature called Selec-Terrain that adjusts the transmission to particular driving conditions, and a hill-descent controller.

The most interesting thing about the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is not the vehicle itself, but the advertising campaign that will launch it. The ads say volumes about where Chrysler is headed under its new ownership.

In the past, the launch of a new Jeep would be accompanied by television commercials showing it crossing deserts, fording rivers, and climbing hills – even though most Jeeps confront obstacles no greater than the speed bumps in a shopping center parking lot.

Its major competitors — the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, and Lexus RX350 — hardly make a head feint in that direction. They are more soft-roaders than off-roaders.

Now Chrysler is abandoning the pretense too. Instead, the new commercials show Jeeps being welded together in a robot framing line in the assembly plant.

The narration talks about Jeep’s commitment to craftsmanship and pride of workmanship.

In the words of Jeep boss Mike Manley, the ads are designed to “celebrate the best of American manufacturing.”

The ad’s tag line drives the point home: “The things we make, make us.”

The ads would appear to be the first shot in a campaign to confront the largest obstacle Chrysler faces in its recovery from bankruptcy: its reputation for poor quality. In the latest JD Power survey of initial quality, Jeep and it sister brand Dodge finished in the bottom quarter.

Successive Chrysler owners have vowed to erase that quality reputation and have failed. The fact that Fiat is Chrysler’s current owner hasn’t helped matters, since many Americans also have a poor opinion of the Italian manufacturer’s quality.

But Chrysler seems determined to change that image. When an executive at West Point was asked what Fiat’s biggest contribution to the new Jeep had been, he promptly replied, “world class manufacturing” at the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit where the Grand Cherokee is built.

Initial impressions of the Grand Cherokee’s fit and finish were favorable, though vehicles presented to the media seldom show flaws since they are specially prepared.

Mechanical defects, of course, will take longer to make themselves evident.

The Grand Cherokee is a big profit-maker and Chrysler needs for it to be a success. But sales are unlikely to return to the halcyon days of the 1990s when the popularity of SUVs was skyrocketing.

The Grand Cherokee may even be a little out of step with the times. There is no third-row-seat option, and fuel economy is mediocre. The V-6 is capable only of 18 miles per gallon city/highway; the V-8 gets 15 mpg.

Still, the pricing is attractive — $30,995 for the base Laredo; $42,995 for the deluxe Overland — and the fact that this is a new Jeep should be sufficient to attract a lot of Jeep fans.