When disenchanted Daimler cut Chrysler loose to drift toward bankruptcy, the folks who make Chryslers, Dodges, and Jeeps weren't exactly in a partying mood.

"My friends and family back in Germany kept asking me, 'Why the heck do you stay at Chrysler and not come home?' " said Klaus Busse, the Jeep interior-design chief who went to Chrysler via Daimler's Mercedes-Benz design department.

But, he didn't panic. He didn't, as he put it, "go up on the roof and wave my shirt."

Instead, he decided to stay because he and his family liked America, and because he was enjoying what he was doing at Jeep.

More precisely, he was getting a kick out of designing the interior of the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The well-designed new Grand Cherokee, making its debut in showrooms this month, has certainly engendered a sense of pride and achievement in Busse and the others who worked so hard to bring it to market.

But this third generation of Jeep's premium SUV is more than a job well done. It is the first new vehicle developed by the Chrysler Group since it emerged from bankruptcy, and its success is crucial. If there is to be a renaissance at Chrysler, it begins with the new Grand Cherokee.

My test drive suggests this newest Jeep Cherokee is a good place to start a corporate rebirth. It turned out to be handsome, comfortable - and one of the most capable off-roaders around. With its new features, like its Quadra-Lift air suspension and Selec-Terrain variable settings, it will do anything a Range Rover will do for half the money.

The 2011 Grand Cherokee, which starts at $30,995 in rear-drive form and $32,995 as a 4X4, is essentially an all-new vehicle. The body, structure, and V-6 engine are new, as is the Grand Cherokee's first fully independent suspension, which was jointly designed by Jeep and Mercedes-Benz under a continuing shared-engineering contract.

The only carry-over components are the all-wheel-drive systems, the transmissions, and the V-8 engine.

The brand-new features include:

Quadra-Lift. An air-suspension system that allows you to adjust the ride height to the situation. The settings include Normal Ride Height (8.1 inches of ground clearance), a lower Park Mode setting for easier ingress and egress, and a very tall 10.7-inch setting for serious off-roading - and serious on-road snow. (It's better to ride over snow than to plow it.)

Selec-Terrain. This ingenious device interfaces with up to 12 power train, braking, and suspension systems to provide the best response to driving conditions. There are five settings: Sand/Mud, Snow, Rock, Sport, and Auto, for normal driving.

A newborn V-6. This is the first application of this engine, a 3.6-liter, 290-horsepower affair that boasts a 38 percent increase in horsepower over the V-6 it replaces, and an 11 percent increase in gas mileage. (It gets up to 23 per gallon.)

The new V-6 turns out to be a civil companion with plenty of pep and the ability to tow 5,000 pounds. The only reason to opt for the significantly thirstier 5.7 liter V-8 would be a need for even greater towing capacity (7,400 pounds).

The nice-handling Grand Cherokee is prettier than its predecessor inside and out, and is more aerodynamic, which improves mileage.

Its greater body strength helps make it quieter than the current Grand Cherokee, as does the sound-deadening effect of the special, laminated window glass and extra layer of insulation.

Because the new Grand Cherokee is a bit wider, higher, and longer, Busse's interior-design team was able to solve the old vehicle's back-seat legroom problem, and provide a 19 percent increase in the size of the rear cargo area.

Even that cargo area reflects the kind of attention to detail that went into this vehicle. The one in the upmarket Limited model I drove was an attractive coalition of black carpeting and chrome floor rails.

"Design studios don't normally pay much attention to cargo areas," Busse said. "They give the job to anyone who can hold a pencil. But we did pay attention."

Rating: Excellent

Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4X4

Base price: $39,995.
As tested: N/A
Standard equipment: 3.6-liter engine, all-wheel drive, full luxury litany from leather to alloy wheels, plus innovations like Selec-Terrain.
Options: Include Quadra-Lift air suspension, and a dual sun roof.
Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city and 22 highway (rear-drive model is 16 and 23).
Handling: Surprisingly agile.
Styling: Smart, nicely sculpted.
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper.


Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com