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Jeep aims to make Grand Cherokee one of a kind

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Jeep aims to make Grand Cherokee one of a kind

Scott Burgess / The Detroit News

San Francisco -- The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of those rare vehicles that has a host of competition and none at all.

For some people, there are only a few alternatives to the Grand Cherokee.

Less-expensive crossovers and SUVs save dollars but none offer the vaunted Trail Rating, meaning it can cross 12 miles of nearly impassable trails known as the Rubicon. And there are much higher-end vehicles, such as Land Rover, which have similar off-road prowess but have much heftier price tags.

Mike Manley, president and CEO of Jeep, told me that's why you see Grand Cherokees in many different types of driveways.

"You can see Grand Cherokees parked at homes with Mercedes and BMWs, as well as Land Rovers or sports cars," Manley said during the recent Grand Cherokee media launch.

Manley and other Jeep executives point out that while SUV sales overall have fallen from the highs enjoyed five years ago, sales for the Grand Cherokee -- and SUVs in general -- are beginning to climb again. Through May, Grand Cherokee sales have climbed 15.8 percent and midsize SUV sales are up 20.7 percent, according to AutoData Corp.

Jim Morrison, head of product marketing for Jeep, said a carefully planned launch, which has already begun with branding ads, will kick off slowly in July, as new Grand Cherokees fill up dealerships.

"We want to avoid having spikes in sales and then see things let off," he said. "We want to build up our marketing and then maintain it."

The all-new Grand Cherokee has focused on high-tech luxury instead of raw power in the field, a calculated move by Jeep to appeal to a broader audience.

"We have the Jeep customers," Manley said. "We need to reach beyond them."

That's one of the reasons that the optional 5.7-liter V-8 on the 2011 Grand Cherokee doesn't include the word Hemi anywhere on the exterior body or any where in the press materials.

"We didn't feel it was necessary," Morrison said.

However, that doesn't mean cutting back on the vehicle's off-road capabilities, said Phil Jansen, the Grand Cherokee's chief engineer.

"This Jeep is even more capable."

It certainly is. Jeep has added loads of new features to improve the Grand Cherokee's ride on and off the road. Furthermore, instead of pushing the truck side of the Grand Cherokee, the new model focuses on the luxury offerings.

First and foremost, the Grand Cherokee denotes quality craftsmanship throughout.

Manley attributes some advances in the manufacturing process to Chrysler Group LLC's new parent company, Fiat SpA.

"We now have a master gauge at the assembly line now that measures tolerances and fit and finish that were never heard of before at Jeep," he said.

That has helped create an extremely quiet ride on the open road and around town. Other new features, such as laminated glass on the windshield and front side windows, deaden wind and road noise.

The interior is simply stunning, with all of the soft touch points soft, the comfortable seats and a second row with 4 more inches of legroom.

Five adults can easily head out on a weekend camping trip with all of their gear stuffed into the 35.1 feet of storage. They can turn around, hose themselves and the Grand Cherokee off and still hit the movies on Sunday night when they return. It's an SUV for all occasions.

Perhaps the most important new feature to debut on the Grand Cherokee is the all-new Pentastar 3.5-liter V-6.

The engine will be in about 80 percent of all Jeep Grand Cherokees sold, Morrison said.

More importantly the engine provides a gusty 290 horsepower to move the Jeep along nicely and will become a featured engine in future vehicles such as the Dodge Charger. Jeep rates the engine as reaching 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway -- which could remain the final obstacle for some customers. Compared to many other big vehicles, however, the mileage numbers are not far off.

That comparison remains incomplete, mostly because the Jeep Grand Cherokee is tough to compare directly to another vehicle. The Ford Explorer may have once been a vehicle to match up against the Grand Cherokee, but not now. Ford seems to want to move it away from its rugged beginnings and more toward the crossover segment. The all-new Toyota 4Runner may have similar off-road abilities but pales to the new Grand Cherokee's interior and more luxurious amenities.

Larger three-row crossovers such as the Honda Pilot and Chevrolet Traverse are bigger but lack the true off-road abilities.

Lacking a true head-to-head vehicle could help the Grand Cherokee push people toward the brand because other vehicles are less capable or more expensive.

Jeep executives certainly hope that's the case.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100620/AUTO01/6200312/1148/Jeep-aims-to-make-Grand-Cherokee-one-of-a-kind#ixzz0rUYlzfjm

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