Chapter 2: Off-Road

The SUV's Ride From Peak to Valley

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's chief designer. Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

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.

That left the early 21st century version with a hard-plastic interior, stripped of chrome and decidedly downscale. By 2005, as work began on a redesign, sales had collapsed for Chrysler's franchise player. "We lost our way," said Ralph Gilles, now 43 and the company's chief designer. "So we took that on the chin and said, `OK, scrap everything. Let's wipe the slate clean."'

Gilles was the man for the job. Suave, slim and stylish, the designer had the hot hand in Chrysler's studio, having scored a hip-hop hit with the Chrysler 300C, a bold American car embraced by rapper 50 Cent and compared to Bentleys. If anyone could navigate the Grand Cherokee back to glory, Gilles could.

Graphic: Sexy Sells: Detroit Booms on Stylish Vehicles

As his lieutenants, Gilles enlisted Jeep design veteran Mark Allen, now 50, to style the exterior and former Mercedes interior designer Klaus Busse to upgrade the cheapened cockpit. Busse, now 44, had most recently been crafting interiors for $100,000 Mercedes-Benz SL sports cars. He jumped to Chrysler in 2005 as part of an exchange with DaimlerChrysler AG, then the corporate parent of both Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler.

Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com Close

Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

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Photograph by Christopher Morris/VII for Bloomberg.com

Reckoning to Revival: Rebuilding the U.S. Auto Industry
Ch. 1
Buckle Up: The Potholes Stay Where They Are
Ch. 2 Off-Road: The SUV's Ride From Peak to Valley
Ch. 3 Recalculating: Failed Talks and an Italian Wedding
Ch. 4 Rearview: Obstacles Closer Than They Appear
Ch. 5 Done Dealership: Collateral Damage to a War Hero
Ch. 6 Idling: Father and Son Live Through Layoffs
Ch. 7 Recall: Insourcing Workers From Detroit
Ch. 8 Trim: Moving the Assembly Line Outside
Ch. 9 High Gear: A New Jeep Every Minute
Ch. 10 Differential: The Divide Over Wages
Ch. 11 Ignition: 'Isn't That What America Is All About?'
Post-Crash Site: Five Scenes of a New Life

Chrysler's uncertain parentage set a tense backdrop for the redesign of the Grand Cherokee. Daimler acquired Chrysler for $36 billion in 1998 and after nine tumultuous years of culture clash essentially paid Cerberus Capital Management LP $670 million in 2007 to take the American automaker off its hands.

As Chrysler descended into insolvency, Gilles attempted to keep designers focused. It wasn't easy. "All hell was breaking loose," he recalled. Chrysler's cavernous technical center in Auburn Hills, Michigan, was emptying out. More than half the workforce were either laid off or left. The building, which houses the design studios, took on an eerie quiet. "It felt like an airport right before it closes at midnight," Gilles said.

Video: How Chrysler Saved the Last Auto Plant in Detroit

The threat of Chrysler's collapse was particularly painful for the Grand Cherokee designers because they'd come so far. They had crafted a Jeep that looked like it had hit the gym, transformed into a trim, fit athlete. This lighter SUV was also better on the inside because Busse had won the battle with the suits to get more money -- not less -- to redecorate the interior. The seats were trimmed with double-stitched leather, while the dashboard was wrapped in cowhide, a first for Chrysler. That budget breakthrough came after a car reviewer compared the quality of Chrysler's plastic dashboards to a cheap, Chinese-made water pistol. When Chrysler's then-CEO Tom LaSorda read that, he told Gilles: "Go. Change the interiors."

Allen, a Jeep history buff, adorned the exterior with subtle references to the brand's storied past, such as the outline of a World War II Jeep etched into the headlights. That olive-drab little Jeep remains an enduring symbol of the Good War. For Detroit, it is a touchstone in its hallowed role as the "Arsenal of Democracy," building tanks, bombers and Jeeps that helped win the war. Willys-Overland, later acquired by AMC, and Ford (F) built 645,000 Jeeps for the U.S. Army during the war. Official military contracts called it a general purpose vehicle, or GP, which was slurred together to create the name Jeep. The seven-slot grille and high wheel arches on the Grand Cherokee are an homage to the rugged roustabout. "That original Jeep is the thing that replaced the horse," Allen said.

The thought of losing all that history -- not to mention their jobs -- had the designers despondent. "Every day, the headlines were worse," Allen said.

Detroit Sinks as Auto Industry Soars

As the bailout debate raged in Washington and car sales collapsed, Gilles could see designers losing heart. "We had kinda run out of money, run out of steam and started not believing in ourselves anymore," Gilles said.

By the time Chrysler tumbled into bankruptcy on April 30, 2009, Gilles and his designers had almost completed what they considered the best Grand Cherokee yet. Now its future was in doubt.

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