Industry watchers get a 2-for-1 with Chrysler LLC’s unveiling today at the New York International Auto Show: a glimpse of the 4th-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee and first peek at the auto maker’s new V-6 engine.

Scheduled to debut next year as an ’11-model, the Grand Cherokee migrates to a true unibody platform, showcasing new features such as an adjustable air-suspension setup, variable-terrain 4-wheel-drive system and a dual-pane sunroof dubbed CommandView that extends from the windshield to the rear of the vehicle.

And a 3.6L V-6 joins the 5.7L Hemi V-8 in the Grand Cherokee’s powertrain lineup. It springs from the family of engines known as Phoenix in their developmental phase – a moniker expected to disappear in favor of the brand name Pentastar.

The redesigned Jeep leapfrogs Chrysler’s minivan products as the first vehicle to feature the new mill. The auto maker had previously said it would arrive first in a minivan.

The auto maker already has assembled Phoenix-powered pilot vehicles at its minivan plant in Windsor, ON, Canada.

The highly anticipated engine could deflect some of the criticism already trickling down on struggling Chrysler for unveiling an utility vehicle, a segment that has become the poster child for indulgence as politicians and pundits clamor for smaller, fuel-stingy vehicles.

While an Associated Press report derides the Grand Cherokee’s 20-mpg (12 L/100 km) fuel-economy rating as “no Prius,” referring to the Toyota-brand hybrid sedan, the performance of the new V-6 represents an 11% improvement in fuel economy, compared with its predecessor.

The Pentastar engine previewed today in the Grand Cherokee generates 280 hp at 6,400 rpm and peak torque of 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) at 4,800 rpm, 33% and 11% higher, respectively, than the 3.7L V-6 it replaces.

The new engine is a double-overhead cam design with high-flow intake and exhaust ports. It also boasts variable-valve timing, achieved through dual independent cam phasing, to optimize combustion.

Refinement was a “key objective” of powertrain engineers, the auto maker says in a statement. The same was true for the Grand Cherokee’s vehicle-development team, which raised the bar in terms of prototype builds.

The second pilot approached production-quality in terms of refinement, Chrysler Vice-President Dan Knott tells Ward’s during a December preview of the new Jeep. “I had tears in my eyes,” says Knott, former Jeep team chief who has since been assigned responsibility for cars, minivans and SRT products.

The new platform shoulders Chrysler’s vision of a more upscale Grand Cherokee. Ralph Gilles, vice president-design, says greater emphasis is placed on interior refinement and a more “elegant” exterior – without compromising the Jeep brand’s reputation for ruggedness.

“That’s really the Jeep challenge,” Knott says.

The new Quadra-Lift air suspension features four settings that afford a ride-height range spanning 5.1 ins. (13 cm), plus a park setting that lowers the vehicle 1.5 ins. (4 cm) for easier ingress and egress.

Normal ride height affords 8.1 ins. (21 cm) of clearance, which is increased to 9.6 ins. (24 cm) and 11.1 ins. (28 cm), respectively, for the two available off-road settings. Meanwhile, “aero mode” lowers the vehicle 0.6 ins. (1.5 cm) for optimal handling and improved fuel economy.

The cleaner exterior also benefits fuel economy by reducing the drag coefficient nearly 8%, Gilles adds.

Quadra-Lift operates automatically or, using console controls, manually. It also works in tandem with Selec-Terrain, a new system that equips the Grand Cherokee with the appropriate level of traction control, depending on conditions.

Selec-Terrain coordinates throttle, braking, gearing and electronic stability control to accommodate sand and mud, snow, rocks and on-road “sport” driving. As with Quadra-Lift, the system can be operated manually or set to adapt to conditions automatically.

Meanwhile, CommandView – which is optional on Laredo, Limited and Overland trim levels – features a moving glass pane at the front of the vehicle’s roof, adjacent to a fixed pane at the rear. A conventional sunroof also is an available option on all models.

Having been slammed by critics for using too much low-grade plastic, the Grand Cherokee’s interior reflects Chrysler’s increased emphasis on material selection. Trim is made of real wood, and touch surfaces benefit from greater refinement.

“Every interior element was placed under the microscope,” Klaus Busse, director-advance interior and component design, says in a statement released today. “When customers touch any part of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee interior, they will experience softer materials, smooth edges and texturally pleasing components.” Increased use of soft-touch materials also mitigates cabin noise, the auto maker claims.

Originally expected to arrive as a ’10½ model, the new model will be assembled at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit. The site was earmarked for a $1.8 billion retooling effort to accommodate the new platform.

The new Grand Cherokee also will benefit from an advanced-design axle supplied from a joint venture with ZF Friedrichschafen AG in nearby Marysville, MI. Production there is expected to begin early next year.

emayne@wardsauto.com