AUSTIN, TX – A small but heated race is on between auto makers building track-ready, high-performance SUVs that combine the agility of a muscle car with the capability of a family hauler.

Company insiders contend Chrysler kicked off the trend with its SRT-tuned Jeep Grand Cherokee, now in its third generation as a new ’14 model hits dealers.

“I think the very first, Gen-1 SRT kind of brought performance SUVs out there,” Dave Cottrell, chief engineer-SRT, tells WardsAuto during a session of hot laps with the ’14 SRT Grand Cherokee at the Circuit of the Americas track here. “I don’t think anyone ever thought you could sell these.

“Those are 425-hp SUVs, and now you see Porsche has them, BMW has them and companies like Lamborghini (are) looking into them.”

The top contenders in the market are the SRT Grand Cherokee, Porsche Cayenne GTS and BMW X5 M. Porsche is considered a prime target for Jeep, as the Cayenne SUV now accounts for a healthy chunk of the German brand’s sales.

To ward off competitors, engineers constantly are re-tuning the SRT Grand Cherokee as more thrill-seekers – with more money – consider the SUV.

The second-generation model that debuted in ’12 was developed in just 16 months. “We were really pinched on it,” Cottrell says of the time-compressed engineering program.

But engineers had more time with the ’14 model, which began development just as the ’12 was released, this time swapping in an 8-speed transmission for the outgoing 5-speed. The suspension, shocks and springs from the previous model carry over, but developers had to reconstruct the calibration, electronics and differentials.

The tweaks make an already solid vehicle that much better, Cottrell says. “The ’12 and ’13 cars were absolutely outstanding track cars.”

Addition of the 8-speed makes for smaller steps between gears, and Chrysler was able to better match downshifts to engine speed, so the vehicle is “a little bit easier to drive with paddle shifters. The shift isn’t as hard-hitting,” he says.

“The 5-speed is a phenomenal track car. It’ll whip around all day long,” Cottrell adds. “This (’14 model) is just a really big refinement. (It’s) a little quicker, because you can just keep the car up on the horsepower and torque peaks a little bit better.”

The ’14 SRT body is 146% stiffer than the first-generation model, he notes. “Because that framework is more stiff, it really allows the chassis to work, it allows our springs to work, it allows you to get a nice ride.”

Cottrell also credits the Grand Cherokee’s basic architecture, which was all-new for the ’12 model. “This platform is such a great platform. There’s a beautiful set of bones underneath it.”

SRT engineers worked with Brembo to provide the largest brake systems ever on an SRT – 16-in. (40.6 cm) rotors with 6-piston model block semi-metallic calipers up front and 13.8-in. (35.1 cm) rotors with 4-piston calipers in the rear. Two tire options are available: Three-season Pirelli P Zero or all-season Pirelli Scorpion Verde.

“We try to make it a little bit in your face, (with) that big loud exhaust (and) that naturally aspirated V-8 to pull you around,” Cottrell says. “So the driving experience, we want it to be a lot of fun.”

The SUVs can reach 160 mph (258 km/h), but one key difference between the SRT Grand Cherokee and similar models is the ability to switch off electronic stability control. “It’s you, the car and God,” he laughs.

In previous presentations, SRT President and CEO Ralph Gilles has pointed out the SRT Grand Cherokee is being cross-shopped with the Cayenne, which wasn’t Chrysler’s original intent.

The auto maker wanted a big-but-fast SUV and to round out the SRT lineup, which had a long tradition of beefing up workaday sedans. But as the horsepower rose, so did the sticker price.

“We ended up with this very high-end luxury SUV,” Cottrell says. “They’re not cheap to make, but the customers are seeing the value.”

An SRT Grand Cherokee prices at about $65,000, notably less than a comparable X5 M and Cayenne GTS, both of which hover near or above the $100,000 mark, he notes. “There’s a group of people who really love this type of vehicle.

“At SRT, we really want cars to be drivers’ cars,” Cottrell adds. “We want you to feel that car when you’re out on the track, we want you to feel like when you get on the gas and move the car around. That’s what makes it fun and that’s how we try to tune our cars and make them have a heart and personality.”

afoley@wardsauto.com