As controversial as the U.S. government bailout of General Motors remains, the rescue of Chrysler is even more so.

In the dark days of 2009, even President Obama’s Automotive Task Force was prepared to let the legendary auto maker, and its iconic Jeep, Dodge and Hemi brands, slip into oblivion.

The task force looked at the company’s balance sheet and denuded product portfolio and did not see much worth saving.

As task force leader and “Car Czar” Steven Rattner recounts in his book “Overhaul,” one of the key arguments for saving Detroit’s most troubled auto maker ended up being the fact that Chrysler’s liquidation likely would cause Michigan’s unemployment system to go broke, requiring an infusion of billions worth of federal funds.

Given the choice between spending taxpayer dollars on a flood of unemployment checks and pumping them into a struggling auto maker in the hope it could revive, Rattner reluctantly chose the latter.

No one disputes it was a risky choice. But now Chrysler’s new products are hitting the road, and they are spectacular. Indeed, the ’11 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango were two of this year’s three finalists for the North American Truck of the Year award.

They are just the beginning of a flood of interesting vehicles coming from Chrysler and its parent Fiat. And, they will be loaded with advanced technology such as MulitAir engines and 9-speed front-wheel- drive transmissions. Chrysler’s new 3.6L Pentastar V-6 already was named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines.

As one of the 49 judges of the North American Car and Truck of the Year competition, I was bowled over by both the Grand Cherokee and Durango.

While the interiors of most previous Chrysler products suffered from relentless cost cutting, the cabins of Jeep and Dodge trucks are stunning, easily competitive with European and Asian luxury brands costing thousands more.

Commentary

On the road, I have never driven a Chrysler truck with such precise steering or well-tuned suspension as the Grand Cherokee. That’s due in part because it is based on the same architecture as the Mercedes M-Class, a remnant from Chrysler’s former marriage with Daimler AG.

But unlike the M-Class, the Grand Cherokee is as happy crawling in the dirt off-road as it is on pavement. And it starts at around $30,000. The base price of the M-Class is about $47,000.

The new Ford Explorer is a well-done SUV, as well, but I was surprised it won over the two Chrysler products.

Even so, both the Grand Cherokee and Durango promise to funnel lots of cash into Chrysler’s coffers in coming years. It’s too early to gauge Durango sales, but Grand Cherokee deliveries were up 211% in December compared with a year ago. Overall, Chrysler Group sales climbed 17% in 2010.

Rattner’s roll of the dice is starting to pay off.

Tens of thousands of Chrysler jobs have been saved, along with thousands more at suppliers and related businesses.

That means hundreds of thousands of Americans will be earning good paychecks and paying taxes for years to come, instead of drawing unemployment compensation and seeing their houses foreclosed upon.

Despite its rising fortunes, many remain unconvinced the Chrysler rescue was a good idea.

Fair enough. To them I offer one simple challenge: Go test drive an ’11 Grand Cherokee or Durango.

dwinter@wardsauto.com