Betting there’s still room for vroom


The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. (Courtesy of Chysler)
Warren Brown
Columnist July 16, 2011

It is fast vying for the title of “fastest.” It is powerful seeking the crown of “most powerful.” It boasts 70 more horsepower than the 400-horsepower Porsche Cayenne S. And it would probably finish ahead of more expensive and prestigious rivals in any contest of handling and maneuverability.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

It is a Jeep, specifically the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 — designed and engineered in Detroit, and assembled mostly in that rough-and-tumble town. The caveat is needed because the heart of the Grand Cherokee SRT8, its new 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine (470 horsepower, 465 foot-pounds of torque), is put together in Saltillo, Mexico.

Insanity knows no borders. Neither does the pursuit of profit.

Introducing a high-horsepower, fuel-consumptive sport-utility vehicle in traffic-choked Los Angeles a week before the closure for repairs of Interstate 405, a major north-south artery here, is the definition of marketing insanity.

In fairness, Chrysler’s executives cannot be blamed for the timing of California’s road work. But it is fair to question the sanity of bringing forth a super-high-performance SUV at a time of mostly rising fuel prices and growing demand for fuel economy.

I put the question to Ralph Gilles, the newly named president and chief executive of Chrysler’s recently established SRT Brand and Motorsports subsidiary. SRT refers to “street and racing technology.”

Are you nuts, Ralph?

He looked at me with the condescending pity of one who knows and understands something his interrogator doesn’t.

“There is a market for these vehicles,” Gilles said. “It’s not a mass market. But it’s lucrative. We’re going after it.”

Put another way, “high-performance driving enthusiasts,” as they are called in industry parlance, are different from you and me. By the standards of normal motorists, they are extreme, if not actually insane.

Performance enthusiasts will spend huge amounts of money, time and work on vehicles seemingly more suited for racetracks than for local roads and streets. They are aware of fuel prices and global challenges to energy procurement. Air quality matters to them as much as it does to anyone else. But theirs is an addiction to speed and the technology used to produce and control it. They want fast vehicles. All car companies want their money.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 — along with SRT versions of the Dodge Challenger and Charger and the Chrysler 300 sedan — are designed to attract high-performance driving enthusiasts. The Jeep of the SRT line is likely to be introduced this fall at a base price around $50,000, making it a value in comparison with high-performance SUVs such as the Porsche Cayenne S (base price $64,400) and the Audi Q7 3.0T S-line ($59,950).

But Chrysler, assertive and borderline cheeky in its resurrection after a 2009 bankruptcy, is selling more than price. It has targeted its SUV rivals in all areas of consumer acceptance — performance, fit-and-finish quality, overall design, and utility. It has hit all those marks with the Grand Cherokee SRT8.

That means the new Jeep can simultaneously be seen as one of the best and one of the most politically incorrect sport-utility vehicles ever produced by Chrysler.

That 6.4-liter Hemi V-8, for example, is a monster. It moves the Grand Cherokee SRT8 from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, pushing it so quickly and smoothly along back roads and highways that you forget you are driving a big SUV.

Whereas many SUVs handle like trucks, the four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee SRT8 behaves much like a sports car, changing lanes and taking corners, when traffic is moving or otherwise unobstructed, with remarkable ease.

Fuel consumption may not be a major concern for the Grand Cherokee SRT8’s intended buyers. But it did occupy the minds of Chrysler’s engineers.

The new 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 has 50 more horsepower and 45 more foot-pounds of torque than the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 it is replacing. But it delivers 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 miles per gallon on the highway, an overall 13 percent improvement in fuel economy for the big V-8 engine.

Premium-grade fuel is recommended for “best performance,” pushing the Grand Cherokee SRT8 deeper into an exclusive, low-volume market.

But that is where it belongs, even if it winds up stuck in a massive traffic jam caused by repairs on a major road in a sprawling city famous for its ability to choke to death with congestion the most passionate motoring fantasies.

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