After soaring in the 1990s, the Grand Cherokee came crashing to earth in the new century. Car buyers began steering clear of SUVs as gasoline prices rose and Al Gore started sharing inconvenient truths about global warming. Making matters worse, the Grand Cherokee drew the flinty attention of Chrysler's finance people, who required each new model to be developed for 20 percent less than its predecessor to try to make money.
Chrysler Group LLC, the U.S. automaker run by Fiat SpA , said the next Dodge Viper sports car is going to be “drop-dead beautiful” so it can take buyers from Porsche SE’s cars and General Motors Co.’s Corvette.
Jason Ryska, the current plant manager at Jefferson North, keeps a baseball bat in his office to remind him of the first time he made contact with the Jeep Grand Cherokee under Fiat management. It was on stage in an amphitheater at Chrysler's design and engineering center in Auburn Hills, shortly after Fiat took control in 2009. Marchionne, the new chief executive officer, handed Louisville Sluggers to Ryska and a gang of Chrysler executives who had survived bankruptcy. He told them to start swinging at the Jeep that was once the pride of the fleet. This wasn't the hot new Grand Cherokee that Ryska builds now. It was the previous model that had been compromised and cost-cut until it was stripped of its dignity and reduced to an "also-ran," as designer Ralph Gilles said. Ryska grabbed the bat and began pounding. It was a corporate catharsis.
Last May, Matt Newman bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, the muscle-car version of Chrysler’s hot- selling SUV. He was hooked at 470 horsepower and paddle shifters, so when the salesman went for the close with a free day of driving at a race track, it was almost overkill.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne drove the first new Jeep Grand Cherokee off the line at a ceremony on May 21, 2010, echoing Bob Lutz's famous roll-off 18 years earlier. This time, the breakthrough did not come via a glass wall. Rather, it was what the boss had to say.