When Chrysler Corp. was acquired by Daimler-Benz in what was then billed as a merger in 1998, the expectation was that the association with Mercedes-Benz would benefit the quality and safety of Chrysler products.
In reality, drastic cost-cutting that sought to make Chrysler a profit center for the merged DaimlerChrysler undercut the potential for those gains, so that when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released its 2009 list of Top Safety Picks, Chrysler was the only major manufacturer without a single model on the list.
Now, as the Fiat-controlled Chrysler tries to shake off its bankruptcy, the first new product to emerge, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, will serve as a bellwether indicating the company's direction. The first clues are positive, as the new Jeep earned a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS, giving Chrysler five models on that list.
"The all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the first production vehicle to launch since our alliance with Fiat and a 'Top Safety Pick' is a great way to start our 2011 product offensive," enthused Scott Kunelsman, senior vice president for engineering at Chrysler Group, LLC.
Chrysler's other models on the list are the Jeep Patriot, Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Avenger and Dodge Journey.
This is in stark contrast to the company's past performance, noted IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. "Chrysler has notably lagged behind its competitors in the past, but the performance of the Grand Cherokee shows they are trying to change that," he said. "Their newest vehicles have state of the art safety performance right out of the gate."
An ironic component of the Jeep's performance is that it is built on the same platform as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and R-Class crossover SUVs, which would be expected to boast maximum safety technology considering Mercedes' heritage in that area. But the IIHS hasn't tested those vehicles, said Rader, so any Jeep benefit from Mercedes know-how can only be guessed.
If, more than a decade after their marriage and a couple years after their divorce, Chrysler's models are finally benefiting from Mercedes safety technology, well, then better late than never for the consumers who will buy the new Jeep when it reaches dealers this summer.