GM and Chrysler SUVs: More of the Same?

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With all eyes on ailing GM and Chrysler, their main debuts at the New York International Auto Show may have offered some hints about their futures. Chrysler president Jim Press spoke in New York of “the new Chrysler,” but amid the politicized tangle of shotgun mergers and bankruptcy speculation, both Chrysler and GM chose to unveil more SUVs. Both companies have long been criticized for their truck-heavy lineups, something that left them in the bottom tier of major automakers in’s True Mileage Index. Are models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and GMC Terrain  going to help either company get moving in the right direction?

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With the Terrain, the answer may be “yes.” Experts say it’s a relevant crossover that fits in with GM’s path toward viability, not to mention GM says it should hit 30 mpg on the highway. The Grand Cherokee garnered mixed reactions: Its quality is promising, but experts are split on whether it’s the type of vehicle that can rescue Chrysler – with or without the help of Italian automaker Fiat, with whom Chrysler is looking to merge. In addition, the Cherokee has some legacy hurdles to overcome: Past models have had dubious interior quality; its most recent incarnation got Marginal safety ratings from IIHS; and it gets gas mileage that, while typical for SUVs of it size, is low compared with similar two-row crossovers.

Chrysler says the Cherokee has gotten a good reception from Fiat: Chief designer Ralph Gilles said Fiat officials “love” the SUV, which is still a “pretty significant player,” he said. “You don’t walk away from this segment.”

Jeff Schuster, vehicle forecasting director at J.D. Power and Associates, agreed. The Grand Cherokee is “extremely important,” Schuster said. “It doesn’t address the gaps in the lineup — those still need to be taken care of. But this is certainly a piece of the puzzle, to make sure they get it right.”

IHS Global Insight auto analyst Tracy Handler said the Grand Cherokee is a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly a game-changer. Case in point: With its new V-6 engine, combined EPA mileage estimates for the Grand Cherokee are 18-19 mpg, depending on whether it’s two- or four-wheel drive. That’s 1 mpg better than the old Grand Cherokee and about even with the Ford Edge. The Nissan Murano (20 mpg) and V-6 Toyota Venza (21-22 mpg) fare better. Blame curb weight: The Grand Cherokee beats its peers in off-road and maximum towing capabilities, but it weighs some 500-1,200 pounds more, depending on the version you’re looking at.

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“It’s still [the] old Chrysler,” Handler said. “It’s a small evolution of the Grand Cherokee. It’s not a quantum leap. I don’t think it’s enough of a difference.”

AutoPacific analyst Stephanie Brinley said the Grand Cherokee is a “strong evolution,” adding that it moves the bar for product improvement past the company’s latest major effort, the Dodge Ram. Because it’s based on the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Brinley said the Grand Cherokee may be a candidate for the hybrid technology Chrysler developed several years ago with Mercedes, BMW and GM. A hybrid M-Class was introduced at the New York show.

Even if Chrysler goes under, Jeep may live to see another day, Handler said. The brand has its fans, and the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler could live on under a different owner.

Over at GM’s display, the Terrain received a comparatively better reception . Like its sister SUV, the Chevy Equinox, the Terrain is projected to get a combined city/highway EPA rating of 23-24 mpg with its four-cylinder engine. That compares well with the four-cylinder Toyota RAV4 (24 mpg), Nissan Rogue (23-24 mpg), Honda CR-V (22-23 mpg) and four-cylinder Ford Escape (21-24 mpg).

“By themselves, it’s difficult to have a single vehicle be a game-changer,” Schuster said. You have “pieces of a solution, and that’s what you really got here. The Terrain is one of those, certainly taking advantage of the growing interest in the crossover vehicle.”

The well-publicized troubles at GM and Chrysler could keep buyers away from both the Grand Cherokee and Terrain, though. If and when these problems clear, it may take time for consumers to drift back to the brands, Brinley said.

Still, Schuster said the Terrain and Grand Cherokee show that their companies are headed in the right direction – and given that vehicle development can take years, lineups usually evolve slowly.

“It’s probably not fair to say, ‘Should they have brought this car out, or a small car or another hybrid?’” Schuster said. “You have to compare to what they’re doing with their entire lineups and programs going forward, in addition to looking at individual models.”  

SUV shoppers know what they’re getting in terms of gas mileage, however. Power and capability still matter, and shoppers are willing to compromise on fuel efficiency toward those ends, Brinley said.

“People want fuel economy, but they really don’t want to give up power,” she said.

Mike Hanley contributed to this report.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

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