Jeep spent $ 1.6 billion on the future home of its new hybrid SUV – and invited me

Seeing the underside of a new car at a launch event is usually a sign that something went terribly wrong. Even before I had touched the steering wheel of the new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L, I had seen it stripped to pure metal. The carmaker knows that perceived quality is the key to pushing the first three-line Grand Cherokee upmarket, and that meant a tour of where they build it – and a preview of what’s to come.

Everything happens at the Detroit Assembly Complex Mack, a 3 million square foot factory in the heart of Detroit. Commonly known as Mack, until less than two years ago it was home to the FCA’s Pentastar engine family. Now, $ 1.6 billion later, it’s something much more special.

Mack’s facility has been used for manufacturing for more than a century, but this renovation for the Jeep Grand Cherokee family makes it the first new assembly plant in Detroit in three decades. The result is a trio of buildings – the body shop, the paint shop and general assembly – where the new SUV is assembled, laser welded, painted and polished and then combined with the engine, driveline, cabin technology and everything else. , before running through a number of tests.

Jeep – now part of Stellantis – is clearly proud of the reborn Mack. Factory tours are not atypical, but seeing an ongoing production line for a car that has not yet reached dealers is still relatively uncommon. Again, the Grand Cherokee L is also quite unusual.

It is the car manufacturer’s first version with three lines, a delayed development can be said given that almost three quarters of sales in its segment are now 6- or 7-seater. The Grand Cherokee has been good for the Jeep over the years; even the outgoing generation remains the company’s best-selling model. The problem is that the segment is changing, and that is Jeep itself.

The new 2021 Grand Cherokee L is the first step in that process. Longer than the current model, to accommodate the all-important third row of seats, it will be followed by a two-row Grand Cherokee that will also be built on the Mack. It will come later in the year.

What is really exciting, however, is the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe. It will be a two-row plug-in hybrid, borrowing the new PHEV brand that Jeep already used on the Wrangler 4xe. As with the smaller SUV, it will have a gas engine combined with a battery and electric drive.

Jeep does not spread details about the exact configuration – Grand Cherokee L will offer a choice of 3.6-liter V6 or 5.7-liter V8, while Wrangler 4xe pairs a 2.0-liter turbo-4 with electric motors – but expectations are silent. high for its reception. Launched just a few months ago, the Wrangler 4xe has been a hit with Jeep (no doubt helped by some particularly juicy leasing deals) and, just as importantly, it has not diluted the company’s reputation of “going anywhere”.

Car factories go much slower than I suspect most people imagine them. The vision is always one of swirling, spinning robot arms pierced by sparks, and yes, Mack is not short of his mechanized helpers. There are hundreds of robots on the production line, which help with everything from mounting and laser measuring the SUV’s shell, to painting it, to helping with loading in wiring harnesses and other components.

However, their actions are jerky and interrupted with pauses. Mack’s measured roll takes about 36 hours per car, and the important thing is not so much that the machines help with the workload but the work they actually do. There is an increase in glue and insulation, a stiffer body and a much more complex electrical architecture, all in the name of making the new Grand Cherokee more refined, more rewarding on the road and being able to compete at a time when technology and active driver assistance systems are equally important such as horsepower and tensile strength.

In short, Jeep leaves nothing to chance. Of course, there is only so much a guided tour of a factory can show you. It’s easy to get fascinated by the ballet of robots, or the multi-million square foot floor of the production line, or indeed the tracks of semi-assembled cars winding around and even across the facility.

If there’s just one takeaway, maybe this is it. Jeep is putting its best foot forward with the new Grand Cherokee L, investing more than a billion dollars in factory renovations to make it the company’s most important model and making electrification a central part of the SUV’s history. The stakes are thus high, but with sales in the sky-high category, so are the potential rewards.

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