Comebacks 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 of Mercedes-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 sport-utility 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 new Grand 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's Grand 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 new model is the best Grand Cherokee in the 27-year history of that model (including those designed under the aegis of the defunct American Motors 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 2011 Grand 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 the Germans, ridiculed by their own countrymen, beaten to a corporate pulp by Wall Street and Washington, and finally sold to the lowest bidder, which happened to be Fiat. The U.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 select-terrain 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 Catskills Mountains region in New York in severe winter weather. To me, proof of Chrysler's comeback was in the safety and ease of my coming and going in that frozen mess. The Grand 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 Avenue North Plant here, where it's made.
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