HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- The feedback from owners and potential buyers was clear as Chrysler Group planned to redesign the Jeep Grand Cherokee for the 2011 model year: The vehicle had lost its luster with SUV enthusiasts.
"The Grand Cherokee did not come across as something they aspired" to own compared to BMW and Lexus models, said Phil Jansen, the Grand Cherokee's chief engineer. "Everybody [here] had a mental picture of what had to be done."
Shipments of the redesigned version begin this month.
The basics: Carryover areas essentially are limited to the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, the five-speed automatic transmission and the four-wheel-drive systems. Everything else is new, Jeep says.
Development was centered on five areas that owners and potential buyers criticized: rear seat packaging, interior refinement, fuel economy, ride and exterior styling.
Clinic participants did not want a revolutionary change in the Grand Cherokee's styling, Jansen said. But they wanted "something that has a little more elegance to it, a little more sculpture to it."
Knee and legroom was the rear-seat issue. The solution: The wheelbase was stretched, resulting in four additional inches of interior space for rear-seat passengers.
Inside, hard plastic materials have been replaced with soft-to-the-touch materials -- leather trim on the door panels, for example. The top-of-the-line Overland model has real wood on the instrument panel and steering wheel. Chrome trim accents the interior.
"The key thing was to make sure that we put the right materials and the right craftsmanship in to return Grand Cherokee back to its premium status," Jeep CEO Michael Manley said here in an interview at a Jeep event.
The Grand Cherokee's previous suspensions were replaced with new front and rear independent suspensions. The body structure is stiffer than that of the previous model, and materials were added to reduce noise in the passenger compartment.
The fuel economy of V-6 models has been boosted 11 percent over 2010 models. Most of that increase comes from the first application of Chrysler's flexible-fuel 290-hp, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. The engine produces 260 pounds-feet of torque. Compared to the V-6 it replaces, horsepower is up 38 percent, and torque increases 11 percent.
Other areas contributing to the fuel economy increase include body aerodynamics, reductions in friction and lighter-weight materials.
Development of the Grand Cherokee started when the automaker was part of DaimlerChrysler. The Grand Cherokee and Mercedes-Benz's next-generation SUVs share some steering column, engine cradle, body structure, suspension and other components. Both companies share the same seat structure supplier.
Jansen labeled the sharing between the two companies at less than 10 percent, by both value and the number of parts.
Notable features: The new air suspension adjusts the vehicle to six ride heights, a range of 4.1 inches overall. At its maximum height, the suspension provides 10.7 inches of ground clearance. Other features include blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and remote engine start.
Standard features: Among them are active headrests, electronic stability control with brake assist, eight-way powered driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and fog lamps.
The market: Jeep sold 50,328 Grand Cherokees in 2009, down 32 percent from the previous year. Through May this year, 22,550 were sold, a 16 percent increase.
What Jeep says: "We hear frequently from Grand Cherokee owners, 'Please don't make it too big,' " said Mark Allen, who heads Jeep design. " 'I want it to fit in my garage.' I think we succeeded on that."
Compromises and shortcomings: Fuel economy for the Hemi V-8 remains the same.
The skinny: Jeep appears to have hit its goals and resolved critics' complaints.