Off the can­vas and off the road, in style

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE CAR PAGES - WAR­REN BROWN brownw@wash­post.com

Cde­troit

ome­backs can an­nounce them­selves in sub­tle ways. Wit­ness the trans­port trail­ers parked at Chrysler Group’s Jef­fer­son Av­enue North Plant here. The Daim­ler name is missing— ob­vi­ously erased from what had been the Daim­lerChrysler logo. Chrysler’s name stands alone, proudly.

It mat­ters not that Chrysler is now owned by Italy’s Fiat. To many of the work­ers and their union rep­re­sen­ta­tives here, that is just a fund­ing ar­range­ment, the re­sult of a global fi­nan­cial sys­tem gone awry.

What mat­ters is that Fiat, so far, has had the good sense to avoid Daim­ler’s folly. When the Ger­man man­u­fac­turer ofMercedes-Benz cars and trucks took over Chrysler in 1998, it treated the Amer­i­can com­pany as a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen, as if Chrysler had never de­vel­oped any­thing, had never made a con­tri­bu­tion to the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try.

Fiat’s ap­proach is dif­fer­ent. It rec­og­nizes that Chrysler’s peo­ple have done as much as any oth­ers in ad­vanc­ing the cause of per­sonal and com­mer­cial wheeled trans­porta­tion. It val­ues pride in crafts­man­ship. In what has amounted to a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ment, ef­fec­tively funded by Amer­i­can and Ital­ian tax­pay­ers (which is an­other story), Fiat has cho­sen to let Chrysler do what Chrysler does best, which is to build some of the world’s most sought-af­ter trucks and sportu­til­ity ve­hi­cles un­der its Dodge and Jeep name­plates.

The va­lid­ity of Fiat’s strat­egy is ev­i­dent in this week’s sub­ject ve­hi­cle, the 2011 Jeep Grand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit. It is a lux­ury SUV out­fit­ted with sup­ple leather-cov­ered seats, a panoramic glass roof and all the lat­est in­fo­tain­ment elec­tron­ics.

Like other mod­ern SUVs, the Grand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit, avail­able with rear-wheel or four-wheel drive, is a work of uni­tized-frame con­struc­tion— used to re­duce ve­hi­cle weight and in­crease fuel econ­omy. This more car­like ap­proach also of­fers bet­ter han­dling than the more truck­like body-on-frame process.

The trick is to move from body-on-frame to uni­tized-frame con­struc­tion with­out un­der­min­ing the pri­mary ap­peal of an SUV as a go-any­where, do-ev­ery­thing ve­hi­cle— a bit of magic the newGrand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit pulls off nicely.

In­deed, of the three 2011 mid­size SUVs fea­tured in this col­umn in re­cent weeks— the Dodge Du­rango Crew, the Ford Ex­plorer XLT and this week’sGrand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit— the Grand Chero­kee stands out as the best in off-road han­dling and in deal­ing with snow and ice on paved roads. The rear-wheel-drive Du­rango delivers the best per­for­mance on dry, paved roads, and the nim­ble four-wheel-drive Ex­plorer is the per­fect bridge SUV— re­mark­ably com­pe­tent on paved roads and in the rough.

So why ap­plaud the 2011 Grand Chero­kee? It’s sim­ple. The new­model is the best Grand Chero­kee in the 27-year his­tory of that model (in­clud­ing those de­signed un­der the aegis of the de­funct Amer­i­canMo­tors Corp.). That’s a re­mark­able ac­com­plish­ment con­sid­er­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tive/own­er­ship and fi­nan­cial hell Chrysler has gone through in the past five years, in­clud­ing bank­ruptcy in 2009.

The 2011Grand Chero­kee, of which the Over­land Sum­mit sits at the top of three Grand Chero­kee mod­els, is a tes­ta­ment to the hu­man spirit. It is the four-wheeled equiv­a­lent of that big bronze right arm and fist sus­pended from a pyra­mi­dal sup­port in the heart of this hard-knock city’s down­town— a trib­ute to Detroit’s Joe Louis, the late, great boxing cham­pion.

It’s dif­fi­cult to feel any­thing but pride sit­ting in the Over­land Sum­mit. Chrysler and its peo­ple were sup­posed to have been down and out. They had been used and abused by theGer­mans, ridiculed by their own coun­try­men, beaten to a cor­po­rate pulp byWall Street andWash­ing­ton, and fi­nally sold to the low­est bid­der, which hap­pened to be Fiat. TheU.S. and for­eign news me­dia had voted it the car com­pany most likely to die and stay dead.

But Chrysler, as rep­re­sented by the Over­land Sum­mit and its sib­lings, the Grand Chero­kee Laredo and Limited, has come back swinging. Fit and fin­ish are among best in class. The new Pen­tas­tar V-6 (290 horse­power, 260 foot-pounds of torque) delivers good power and equally good, for a work­horse SUV, fuel econ­omy (16 miles per gal­lon in the city and 23 on the high­way).

The driv­ing-as­sis­tance technology in­stalled in the Over­land Sum­mit is among best in class. That in­cludes the “se­lect-ter­rain” technology, ex­am­ples of which also can be found on the Ford Ex­plorer and Land Rover Range Rover, used to choose the best en­gine-sus­pen­sion-trans­mis­sion re­la­tion­ship for travers­ing snow, climb­ing or de­scend­ing moun­tain roads, or rolling through mud, sand and gravel. Op­er­at­ing in tan­dem with Jeep’s trade­marked Quadra-Lift sys­tem, the selec­tter­rain technology can also be used to in­crease or re­duce ve­hi­cle ground clear­ance, depend­ing on ter­rain and ve­hi­cle an­gle and speed.

I drove the 2011 Grand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit nearly 800 miles, mostly in and around the Catskill­sMoun­tains re­gion in­NewYork in se­vere win­ter weather. To me, proof of Chrysler’s come­back was in the safety and ease ofmy com­ing and go­ing in that frozen mess. The­Grand Chero­kee Over­land Sum­mit never slipped or lost its grip mov­ing up­hill or down­hill. It just kept go­ing, grind­ing it out, much like the peo­ple at Chrysler’s Jef­fer­son Av­enueNorth Plant here, where it’s made.

CHRYSLER

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