AUBURN HILLS, MI – Beginning with the next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, due in dealerships this year, Chrysler LLC will migrate cruise-control activation from stalks to steering wheels, the auto maker’s top quality manager reveals.

The move is prompted by significant levels of customer frustration uncovered in survey data. Doug Betts, vice president and chief customer officer, says some feedback suggests customers “hate” the stalk-mounted controls, adapted for Chrysler vehicles from a design featured in Toyota Motor Corp. products.

“Loyal Toyota customers love that thing,” says Betts, a former Toyota executive. But the level of appreciation directly correlates with familiarity.

“If you’re (in) a Toyota household, which I was for eight years, it’s wonderful because (moving the stalk) up is faster, down is slower, back is slow,” he tells Ward’s. “And so it’s very intuitive.”

However, in a “mixed” household, where brands other than Toyota may be represented in the driveway, the experience can be “very different.” A distinct learning curve is associated with the stalk-mounted control, located just behind steering wheels near the 4-o’clock position, Betts says.

“We’re going through that. None of our people have seen this thing. They hate it – 10% of the people (after) 90 days say, ‘I don’t know what this thing’s doing.’”

Some report they accidently broke the device.

“We’re going to go back to (cruise-control activation) on top of the wheel,” Betts says. “On average, people prefer that. We’ve got a new generation of steering wheels coming. It’s all going to the top.”

Chrysler appears to be headed in the proper direction with this move, says John Tews, spokesman for J.D. Power and Associates. “It looks like they’re addressing the areas they need to address.”

J.D. Power consumer surveys indicate the stalk-mounted control has been problematic for Chrysler. For ‘08 and ‘07, it was the top-ranked design complaint against Chrysler-brand vehicles, according to J.D. Power data.

Owners of ‘08 Jeeps also cited cruise control as their biggest gripe – a significant leap considering the problem didn’t make the top five complaints against the brand’s ‘07 models.

Dodge-brand customers ranked the stalks second on their list of least-favorite features. For ‘07, the devices weren’t even among top five complaints.

Chrysler’s approach also is consistent with the industry’s evolution, says Jeff Aird of TRW Automotive, which supplies steering wheels for the Jeep Liberty and Chrysler PT Cruiser.

“Most vehicle manufacturers use steering-wheel-mounted switches or buttons to control the cruise-control system, and it appears that this trend is continuing based on discussions with our OEM customers,” says Aird, TRW’s global director-steering wheels and driver’s side airbags.

That Chrysler’s first application will be on the ‘10 Grand Cherokee is no surprise given the auto maker’s renewed focus on proactive quality improvement. Betts, recruited to Chrysler 17 months ago from Nissan North America Inc., has restructured Chrysler’s quality-control process to foster greater forethought in product development.

Meanwhile, what will the auto maker do to help dealers who encounter customer backlash to the current, stalk-equipped lineup?

“We’re trying to educate better and put better material in the car and very quickly and clearly explains how it works,” Betts says.

emayne@wardsauto.com