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New features in Detroit’s first auto assembly plant in nearly 30 years seek to make every Jeep Grand Cherokee coming off the line even more ready to tackle Michigan potholes and other road impediments with a little “more Chalma.”
That’s Stellantis NV engineer-speak for the new obstacle course-like test track installed at the Detroit Assembly Complex named for a road outside Mexico City with rough terrain. The track and other measures taken are part of an effort across the transatlantic automaker’s North American brands to improve the quality of their vehicles and catch problems sooner before they hit dealer lots and customers’ hands, says Mark Champine, Stellantis’ head of quality in North America.
“The current Grand Cherokee is the most-awarded SUV ever,” he said. “It’s a great base to start from. To take it to the next level, we ask: What can we do to make the product better, more robust, more repeatable, more on-site, to improve the process, and to train people?”
The automaker has invested $1.6 billion to convert the former Mack Avenue Engine Complex partially been idled on the east side of the Motor City into a manufacturing site. Creating 3,850 jobs, the factory will churn out the next-generation Grand Cherokee, which is Jeep’s most popular vehicle. It also will produce the new three-row Grand Cherokee L, set to launch before the end of March.
The plant’s Chalma track is part of improving the process of building those vehicles for a brand pushing to improve its quality. Chrysler engineers in the early 1950s identified the treacherous road made mostly of cobblestone as the inspiration for part of the testing conditions at the automaker’s proving grounds in Chelsea. The Chalma test is one of 17 meant to stretch the vehicles’ suspension and capabilities in their development. Chalma includes seven elements, including bumps, cobblestone stretches, potholes and trenches.
“From my understanding, Chalma Road was one of the most rugged roads we were looking for to help qualify and validate vehicles,” said Ray Durham, Stellantis’ global head of proving grounds and engineering services organizations. “Since then, it has evolved and evolved and evolved.”
Now, the automaker is adopting Chalma again for a less-intensive end-of-the-line exam that every vehicle at the Mack Assembly Plant will undergo. It includes some of the same elements as the Chalma portion of the proving grounds in addition to a rumble strip and bridge traverse.
“What these short tests do is validate they got it all right,” said Durham of the assembly of the vehicles. It ensures “I don’t have something loose, don’t hear a buzz, don’t hear a rattle, don’t hear a squeak, don’t hear a link or something that didn’t get tightened properly. It flags them out right then and there. We’re able to make sure they don’t leave the plant with any type of defects.”
That is critical for identifying problems on the assembly line as well as saving time for retail partners and customers, Champine said. There are quality checks at various stations throughout the building process, but this one tests the final product as customers will use it. The new larger Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer SUVs also will be tested on a similar obstacle course at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant when they launch in the second quarter.
“In our quality word, speed is critical — speed of issue identification and speed of issue resolution,” Champine said. “What more Chalma gives us is a 100% road test, the ability to identify issues quickly and to fix them quickly.”
The automaker installed a Chalma test track at its Sterling Heights Assembly Plant for the launch of the redesigned Ram 1500 pickup truck in 2018. Champine points to Ram’s third-place tie last year with Chevrolet on J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study behind Dodge and Kia as evidence of results.
The Jeep brand has improved, too, increasing to 11th place from 17th the year prior, but Champine says there is room for improvement. It may have a more difficult time moving up the rankings compared to its more narrowly focused sister brands, said Doug Betts, president of J.D. Power’s automotive division and previously an executive at Jeep’s parent company.
“Ram is just trucks and then Dodge is just muscle cars, so one of the issues for Jeep is it is covering a broader section of the market,” Betts said. “You do have the Wrangler, which is selling to people who have one place to go for that in the market and are big fans of the product.”
Jeep across the board also outperformed the industry average in self-driving technology, including safety features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, and in infotainment with its Uconnect system. Both have been historically tough categories but will be important features especially as Jeep enters the larger and more up-scale segments with the Grand Cherokee L and Grand Wagoneer.
The adventure brand also outscored the industry average on exterior and interior quality, and the current-generation Grand Cherokee outscored the industry average in every category except seating.
When it comes to the product itself, Champine said even the smaller components like fasteners were reevaluated for the Grand Cherokee. Engineers made changes to 350 connectors to make it easier for line workers to attach the electric wiring. Problems with those can be some of the most frustrating for customers and difficult for dealers to diagnose, Champine said.
Meanwhile, unique to the Mack plant is new gap-and-flush technology that measures gaps between panels for consistency. The cameras usually are used in the body shop, but the tool will examine every vehicle at the end of the line at Mack as an additional measure of verification. These cameras also use lasers for even more precise measurements.
“Quality has got a lot of different meanings to different people,” Champine said. “Some people think of quality as reliability and durability. Some people look at quality as what we talked about with gap and flush — when you look and sit inside this vehicle, and the interior improvements give you an appreciation for quality and craftmanship, fine attention to detail.
“What we want to communicate is that the Grand Cherokee started at a great spot, and we fully intend to build from that with an even better customer experience with all of the improvements this vehicle is going to offer.”