RUBICON SPRINGS, CA – For auto makers that covet a slice of the SUV market cornered by Jeep’s iconic Wrangler, the competition just got stiffer.

Torsional rigidity improves by 50%, and the body is 100% more resistant to bending.

The all-new ’07 Wrangler and its 4-door platform-mate, the Wrangler Unlimited, are shouldered by a fully boxed frame that offers improved on-road refinement and more robust off-road performance, Chrysler Group says.

Such advancements are expected with superior manufacturing methods such as hydroforming, which is employed for sections of the front frame rails that support the vehicle’s 5-link suspension.

The frame’s cross-members – seven on the Wrangler, eight on the Unlimited – also are boxed.

But some contributors to the new model’s stiffness are less apparent and mirror Chrysler’s ongoing initiative to engineer greater assembly efficiency.

For example, the previous model’s transfer case was a 5-piece casting assembled with nine bolts. For ’07, the Wrangler features a 3-piece casting pieced together with 18 bolts.

“That might not sound like much,” says Mike Donoughe, Chrysler Group vice president-body-on-frame product team. “But not only do you reduce the number of joints and all that, which can lead to leaks and other things, you also increase the stiffness of the overall system.”

Such design inspirations are helping put the Dodge Caliber on the road for less money than the car it replaced, the Dodge Neon.

A consolidation strategy whereby components are engineered to comprise fewer parts than previous models is expected to save the auto maker $300 million on Caliber production.

Chrysler could even exceed that number if the resulting reduction in complexity translates into lower warranty costs.

Donoughe foresees the possibility of a similar trickle-down effect on the Wrangler program. Greater stiffness portends less vibration and harshness, a critical measure of customer satisfaction, which will help keep owners on the road and out of dealership service departments.

“You wind up with kind of a Nirvana – lower cost, higher quality, better performance,” Donoughe says. “It’s a license to print money.”

And making money is the endgame. Donoughe says Chrysler’s earnings per unit sold (EPUS), a key internal warranty cost metric, has been declining “steadily” for the last few years. “Across all our products, not just Wrangler,” he says.

Donoughe declines to give specific numbers but claims Chrysler is on target to achieve double-digit improvement year over year.

Chrysler may start with a ‘C,’ he adds. But internally, the letter stands for a “condition” that drives customers back to their dealers.

Incremental costs associated with engineering advancement belie improvements in customer satisfaction.

“Because of some of the systems that we’re developing now, the cost-per-condition is going up,” Donoughe says. “So you can be improving on ‘Cs’ at, let’s say, a rate of 20% per year, but on EPUS only 10% because of that cost-per-condition.”

While mindful of the EPUS metric, Donoughe lets “our bean counters” shoulder most of that worry. “But the ‘C’ is a dissatisfied customer,” he adds. “They’re suffering an inconvenience.”

Such focus seems well placed because an independent assessment of Jeep’s performance suggests the storied brand is headed in the wrong direction.

The 2006 Initial Quality Study by J.D. Power and Associates shows Jeep customers reported 153 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with 120 in the 2005 research.

emayne@wardsauto.com