If the 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee were a child, chief engineer Tom Seel and lead designer Mark Allen would be devoted but different co-parents doing the best they can for their offspring. A parent is happy to let the child play more hours of video games. The other wants him to read more books. Families who have figured it out know how to work together for the most positive outcome.
It is not always easy for the design team and the engineering team to collaborate when looking at a vehicle project from different perspectives. Seel and Allen, each decades-long Jeep veterans, understand when to lean in and when to let the other lead.
“If developing a car was easy, we’d put together a spreadsheet and go,” Seel told me at a sit-in in Moab, Utah, where I had a chance to put the new Grand Cherokee through its paces. “But it’s not like that. There are constant balances and compromises, and we had a few—”
“-tense moments?” Allen breaks in with a grin. Seel agrees, stressing that no one took any conflict personally. It was all about what was right for the car, the two acting as co-custodians.
“It’s going to sound silly, but the Jeep always had to win; it wasn’t me or him,” says Allen. “The tension builds between design and engineering, but the car has to come first.”
From all angles, the Jeep team knows that the Grand Cherokee is a staple product, whose heritage dates back nearly 30 years. If one end of the Jeep spectrum is the Wrangler, the other is most certainly the Grand Cherokee, Allen says. When the planning process began for a bottom-up redesign of the popular two-row SUV, former Jeep boss Mike Manley pushed hard for off-road improvements. Allen believes the new version achieved this goal, particularly in the articulation, and he says it has a more comfortable ride than the previous generation.
Stretch the boundaries
For the 2022 model year, the Grand Cherokee is longer and wider, with 3.7 inches in the rear and nearly two inches in the wheelbase. That alone was a powerful tug; at different parts of the process, either the design team or the engineering team would have to give, and the difference could be as small as a single millimeter. Allen is passionate about increasing the track by 36 millimeters (18 millimeters on each side) to give the Grand Cherokee a more planted feel, and it was up to him to convince the engineering team that it was a worthwhile change.
“I’m the one who pokes my nose into a lot of technical issues: suspension, steering and so on,” says Allen. “Really, when you’re building a suspension, looks are at the bottom of the list, and Tom helped me get it where I wanted it.”
The new axle-on-engine structure also helped Allen’s design team by lowering the engine by 40 millimeters, improving the SUV’s dynamics and balance.
Beam casting was also a challenge. Typically, Jeep builds a base level and a luxury level headlight; Allen suggested that it would be easier (and better for the design) for every Grand Cherokee to carry the same headlamp. The engineering team agreed. By going to LEDs across the board and adding the signature upper pan, both Seel and Allen were pleased. The idea met all cost targets and thematically still worked.
Paint the ceiling
The next hurdle was agreeing on the roof color, and Allen pushed for all Grand Cherokee trims to come with a black top. But that added another layer of complexity because black-top vehicles would have to go through the paint shop twice, adding time and assembly line mileage.
When a roof has a different paint color than the body, the top is first painted in a separate track line, then taped up and going back through the body color line. Taping the car is a manual process during which an assembly worker circles the vehicle with a sophisticated tape gun; operators only have a few minutes to complete the task. Doing this for every Grand Cherokee would not be ideal for meeting production targets.
Even the way the tape is applied needs to be reviewed with an extensive amount of engineering to determine where each of these tape lines go. The goal is to have it look perfect while matching the throughput numbers, so they had to work together to ensure that the person using the tape gun and pulling the tape can do it efficiently and effectively at X jobs per hour.
“It was about bringing advanced manufacturing into the fold,” says Seel. “They would say, ‘Yes, we can do that, but we can only do a certain number of them to maintain throughput.’ Then there was the discussion about which trims made the most sense for the paint process.”
The team agreed to make the black roof optional on the Overland and standard on the Trailhawk and Summit variants. This way, the manufacturing team was able to meet their production goals, the engineering team was able to keep track of the process, and the design team was satisfied with the collaboration. Allen says it took some horse-trading.
“You’ll notice the car doesn’t have body-tinted mirrors,” he says. “We decided to make all the mirrors black, and what that did was reduce the number of parts. For example, there is a base mirror, one with blinkers, one with a sensor and so on. Multiply that times nine colors. How many mirrors did we hit out of there by making all-black mirrors? A lot.”
With that proposal, the team realized they could go from over 350 types of mirrors down to 19. From a manufacturing perspective, each mirror needed to be stored, displayed and sequenced so that the assembly team could select and place it. Having fewer options greatly streamlines the production line, and from a design perspective gives the new Grand Cherokee a more “tech” look, Allen says.
Both Seel and Allen agree that their baby is growing up, and with parents so involved in its development, it’s almost guaranteed to continue Jeep’s track record of success with this SUV.
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