AUBURN HILLS – The unveiling of the Jeep Grand Cherokee at the New York auto show this week marks the grand finale in Chrysler Group’s 9-vehicle, new-product blitz.

The new-from-the-ground-up ’05 Grand Cherokee is among the most critical. The midsize SUV is designed to reinvigorate the Jeep lineup, which has dwindled to three vehicles, while increasing the breadth of this flagship’s traditional appeal.

That means a menu of engine choices, transmission variants, 4-wheel-drive systems and brake options in what has become a distinctively more complex SUV. The host of options is meant to help combat what has become a crowded segment of competitors that likely would not exist had it not been for the Grand Cherokee’s initial popularity.

Jeep unveils new Grand Cherokee in New York.

“The competition the Grand Cherokee has spawned is just incredible,” says Craig Love, vice president-activity vehicle and premium product team. “It’s not a move up-market as much as an expansion of what the Grand Cherokee offers. This is meant to replace and grab as many new customers as we can.”

Fundamentally and design-wise, however, the third incarnation of the Grand Cherokee, the new WK platform, is not a radical departure from its heritage.“Our customer base says, ‘Don’t mess with the Grand Cherokee,’” says Love. “This is, in our minds, a classic.”

The vehicle’s dimensions have grown – although not significantly enough to add a third row of seats – a popular feature in many comparable SUVs that Jeep has chosen to eschew.

The new Grand Cherokee features a longer wheelbase (109.5 ins. vs. 105.9 ins. [278.1 cm vs. 269.0 cm]), longer overall length (186.7 ins. vs. 181.3 ins. [474.2 cm vs. 460.5 cm]) and wider track (62.0 ins. vs. 59.5 ins. [157.5 cm vs. 151.1 cm]) than the last model.

“The task in design was not to make it look as if it was a more difficult-to-park vehicle,” says Rick Aneiros, vice president-Jeep/Truck and component design.

The new model also features iconic Jeep design characteristics, such as the 7-slot grille and round headlights (a departure from the Grand Cherokee’s formerly rectangular headlamps).

The hood is proportionately lengthened, the rounded corners more boxed and the sides more vertical than in the last model, giving more of a traditional Jeep appearance. Jeep also raised the Grand Cherokee’s beltline significantly, following in the design steps of other new Chryslers, such as the 300 and Dodge Magnum.

The higher beltline, which creates a visual lift to the center of gravity, means smaller windows, which, Aneiros says, increases the passengers’ sense of security. “It’s a little more of a protective look. A little bit of the cocooning thing” that he says people began to desire after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Love it or hate it, design clearly is going in this direction, Aneiros says. “Everyone’s going there that we can see. Design is clearly important. It’s the battleground of the future.”

The Grand Cherokee also has shed much of its cladding – and black cladding altogether. What little that is left is body color, while the upper trim level gets chrome accents.

On the inside, plenty of attention is paid to the seats, which traditionally have been a sore spot with Jeep owners. Jeep continues to source seats from Johnson Controls Inc. but now is going with dual-density foam seats, which are more European in feel for better comfort – especially over long distances.

The instrument panel and instrument cluster take on a sleeker look, which Jeep communicates throughout a more upscale interior. Other new features include: a gated automatic transmission shifter; DVD rear-seat entertainment system; Boston Acoustic 6-speaker audio system; 8-way driver- and 4-way passenger-seat controls; stadium seating in the rear; more storage; single-action 60:40 split rear folding seats; and more commodious cup holders.

Jeep says the new Grand Cherokee will maintain its claim to best-in-class off-road capabilities through its choice of 4-wheel-drive systems.

The base system is Quadra-Trac 1, a basic, fulltime 4-wheel-drive system meant for road surfaces and designed for ease of use. It comes with the new, NV140 single-speed transfer case, which splits torque 48:52 front/rear. Jeep’s Brake Traction Control System (BTCS) is available, which uses the brakes to provide resistance to any wheel that is slipping, allowing for additional torque transfer to the wheels with traction.

The midlevel Quadra Trac II 4WD system includes BTCS as standard, as well as a new NV245, 2-speed, low-range active transfer case.

Jeep expects the third option, the new premium Quadra Drive II 4x4 system, to be best in class. Its fulltime 4WD includes the NV245 transfer case with an industry-first application for front and rear electronic limited slip differentials, electronic stability program and dynamic handling system.

Along with the three drive systems and two transfer cases, Jeep is offering three engine choices: a V-6, a mid-range V-8 and Hemi V-8.

In the Grand Cherokee, the 5.7L Hemi V-8, popularized in the Dodge Ram and now used in Chrysler’s new large sedans, will make 325 hp at 5,100 rpm and 370 lb.-ft. (502 Nm) of torque at 3,600 rpm, which Jeep says will be best-in-class power.

Jeep says 90% of peak torque is available from 2,400-5,100 rpm. The Hemi, which is 10% lighter than the 5.9L it replaces, also offers Multi-Displacement System cylinder deactivation, which can shut down four cylinders for better fuel economy when less power is needed, and switch back to the V-8 mode on demand.

Chrysler has updated its 4.7L V-8, which powered the last-generation Grand Cherokee, with dual knock sensors for improved engine calibration.

It also sports improved noise, vibration and harshness (HVAC) characteristics through the use of composite valve covers, structural improvements to the airbox and resonator and improved dampening on the heat shields.

The engine puts out 230 hp at 4,700 rpm and 290 lb.-ft. (393 Nm) of torque at 3,700 rpm.

The 3.7L V-6 option was first introduced in the Jeep Liberty. It produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb.-ft. (319 Nm) of torque. Jeep made some changes to improve engine smoothness at idle and overall quietness in general. Officials expect Grand Cherokee buyers to favor the 5.7L Hemi and 3.7L V-6.

There are two transmission choices: the carryover 545RFE 5-speed automatic used with the two V-8s, and an all-new 5-speed automatic for the V-6. Both feature electronic range-select driver-interactive shift controls for the first time on the Grand Cherokee.

Three levels of brakes are offered: a standard antilock braking system; the BTCS system; and Jeep’s electronic stability control system. The Grand Cherokee uses an all-new short- and long-arm independent front suspension, which replaces a solid tube axle, plus a 5-link rear suspension.

“It’s going to feel like a Jeep, but it’s going to feel a lot more car-like on the road,” Love says.

Among Chrysler’s lineup, the new Grand Cherokee is one of the first to offer advanced multistage airbags with an occupant classification system for front-seat occupants. The system detects the size of an occupant based on weight and determines the level of airbag deployment. Optional side curtain airbags also are offered.

Jeep has yet to finalize which of the smorgasbord of technical options will be mated to each other or to what trim level, as well as what equipment is standard vs. an option.

Love says the platform is designed to support derivatives, although none have been specified. He also says that while there is no direct sharing of parts with Mercedes-Benz, Jeep has dipped into the global parts bin for Grand Cherokee features, such as the HVAC system.

Chrysler Jeep will begin building the Grand Cherokee this summer at its Jefferson North plant in Detroit for a fall release. Officials assure that the assembly plant and ancillary engine plants have the capacity to meet whatever demand comes.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com