CHELSEA, MI – Chrysler’s move to elevate SRT to full brand status from a trim level is a response to rapidly shifting customer demographics, says SRT President and CEO Ralph Gilles.

“There is a new breed of customers coming our way,” Gilles tells Ward’s here during a media preview of Chrysler’s model-year ’12 lineup.

This is especially true of the new-for-’11 Jeep Grand Cherokee, he adds, referring to the SUV’s more-refined ride and handling and upscale cabin – one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors.

Buyers of the new Grand Cherokee often are more affluent than customers who normally frequent Chrysler showrooms. “The income is almost double,” Gilles says.

Dealers confirm this trend, to a point. Sean Griffin, new car manager at Airpark Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Phoenix says the Jeep brand always has appealed to the well-heeled.

“But we didn’t capture them,” he tells Ward’s, adding that changed with the arrival of the redesigned Grand Cherokee.

“I probably have seven or eight (BMW) X5s in as trade-ins on my lot,” Griffin says.

Such buying power correlates directly to desire. And SRT is being positioned to fulfill those desires.

SRT, short for Street and Racing Technologies, “has come a long way,” Gilles says. “They’re really sophisticated cars now. They have all this modern technology.”

For ’12, SRT leverages the 6.4L Hemi that debuted in the ’11 Dodge Challenger SRT8. The engine migrates to ’12 SRT8 versions of the Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 fullsize sedan and its Dodge Charger platform-mate.

“So we’ll have a fleet of (four SRTs) all – bam! – hitting the market at the same time,” Gilles says.

But new product is not enough. “The guy that buys (SRT) expects more,” he adds.

“He expects to be treated (better). He expects his own website, his own events, his own branded merchandise. So we’ve got to do our homework to get our customer experience up to that new level.

“The cars have come up. We have to bring the game up,” Gilles says.

The former Dodge chief appears ‘up,’ as well. His move from a volume brand to head of a new performance-oriented marque similar to Abarth in the corporate structure of Chrysler alliance-partner Fiat, has Gilles grinning from ear to ear.

While he long has been pushing to elevate SRT’s status, Gilles suggests he didn’t necessarily see himself at the top of the ladder. His appointment was the idea of Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who also heads Fiat.

SRT grew out of Chrysler’s former Performance Vehicle Operations division. To date, 10 nameplates have worn the SRT badge, ranging from the Dodge Caliber compact to the Dodge Viper 2-seat supercar.