The Jeep Detroit Assembly Complex Mack is a three million square foot factory located in the heart of Detroit. Known colloquially as Mack, it was the home of FCA’s Pentastar engine family until less than two years ago. Now, after $1.6 billion, it’s something much more special.
The Mack site has been utilized for manufacturing for over a century, but this makeover for the Jeep Grand Cherokee family is the city’s first new assembly factory in three decades.
The result is a trio of buildings – the body shop, the paint shop, and general assembly – where the new SUV is assembled, laser welded, painted, and polished, and then joined with its engine, drivetrain, cabin tech, and everything else before being put through a battery of tests.
Jeep, which is now part of Stellantis, is evidently pleased with the new Mack. Factory visits are common, but witnessing a working production line for a car that has yet to reach dealerships is unique. The Grand Cherokee L, on the other hand, is a unique vehicle.
It’s the automaker’s first three-row model, a long time coming given that nearly three-quarters of sales in its market are now 6- or 7-seaters. Jeep has gotten a lot of mileage out of the Grand Cherokee over the years, and the current iteration is still the company’s best-selling vehicle. The problem is that the segment, like Jeep, is evolving.
The new 2021 Grand Cherokee L is the first step in that direction. It will be followed by a two-row Grand Cherokee, which will also be constructed at Mack, and will be longer than the current model to accommodate that all-important third row of seats. That will happen later this year.
But it’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe that piques our interest. That will be a two-row plug-in hybrid, with Jeep using the new PHEV logo on the Wrangler 4xe already. It’ll have a gas engine, battery, and electric propulsion, just like the smaller SUV.
Jeep is keeping quiet about the specific configuration – the Grand Cherokee L will have a choice of 3.6-liter V6 or 5.7-liter V8, while the Wrangler 4xe will have a 2.0-liter turbo-4 with electric motors – but hopes for its reception are quietly high. The Wrangler 4xe, which was only introduced a few months ago, has proven to be a hit for Jeep (aided, no doubt, by some particularly attractive lease rates) and, more crucially, hasn’t tarnished the company’s reputation for “go anywhere” capability.
Car factories operate at a considerably slower pace than most people realize. The image is always of swirling, whirling robotic arms punctuated by flourishes of sparks, and Mack has many of them. Hundreds of robots aid with everything from constructing and laser-measuring the SUV’s shell to painting it and loading in the wiring harnesses and other components on the production line.
Their movements, on the other hand, are erratic and punctuated by pauses. Mack’s measured trundle takes about 36 hours per car, and what matters isn’t so much the machines assisting with the workload as it is the actual labor they’re performing.
The new Grand Cherokee has more glue and insulation, a stiffer body, and a far more complex electrical architecture, all in the name of making it more refined, more enjoyable to drive, and capable of competing in an age where technology and active driver assistance systems are as important as horsepower and towing ratings.
In other words, Jeep isn’t taking any chances. Of course, there’s only so much that a factory tour can show you. It’s easy to be entranced by the robot ballet, the production line floor’s multi-million square footage, or the rails of half-assembled vehicles weaving their way around and even over the plant.
Jeep is putting its best foot forward with the new Grand Cherokee L, investing more than a billion dollars in factory renovations in the hope that it will remain the company’s most important model, and making electrification a focal point of the SUV’s story. The stakes are high, but with category sales on the rise, so are the potential rewards.