Despite rosy reports today on the partnership between German transmission company ZF and Chrysler, the unspecified "powertrain" issue impacting the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and delaying its launch is, predominately, an issue of getting the 9-Speed automatic transmission to actually use all nine gears properly according to sources.
The new Jeep Cherokee, a small SUV/Crossover based on an Alfa Romeo platform that we leaked early, is the company's most important new product in a decade. It's a vehicle that'll expand the Jeep in the U.S., is expected to be its biggest seller, and will prove that the company's attempts at platform sharing between Fiat and Chrysler can be extended even to its toughest brand.
It's also a big deal for ZF, which just announced it plans to spend $215 million building 8- and 9-speed transitions in South Carolina.
There is no room for a failure. They have to get it right. That's why, we hear, Jeep delayed their big media launch set for Seattle next week. I'd already had my tickets booked for me and hotels arranged. Reversing everything must have been a huge headache and a cost for the company.
Here's the reason Chrysler gave:
Over the last couple of weeks during final quality and durability testing, we have discovered the opportunity to further improve powertrain calibration."
Chrysler would only reiterate that statement above when I contacted them, but they're referring, predominately, to the ZF-designed nine-speed transmission according to people we've spoken with. A "first" for a vehicle in its class, they often remind people. Specifically, the vehicle, when equipped with the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine has trouble engaging 8th and 9th speed properly, sources tell us.
The issues have cropped up in vehicle testing the last few weeks and were serious enough to cause them to halt the media event. Jeep has built a number of vehicles already and they're sitting waiting for a software upgrade (another sign this is something that can be fixed with software).
A source familiar with Chrysler procedures confirmed it's an issue of programming, saying that the box is mechanically fine. The transmission is a torque convertor design that's similar to the six-speed box ZF produces but with three additional speeds. Here's how allpar describes it:
Four individual gearsets and six shifting elements made it possible to have nine speeds; yet the transmission is compact, because the gearsets were “intelligently nested” instead of being distributed on the longitudinal axis. Hydraulically-operated constant-mesh elements were used in order to enable high efficiency without a punishing overall transmission length; while multidisk shift elements in the open condition create drag torques, these losses are very low in dog clutches. Thus, enhanced efficiency generated by small transmission steps is not lost again via drag losses due to the complex design.
A complex, modern box with complex, modern issues. While some of the early models had problems typical of pre-production prototypes (sticking in neutral, phantom shifts), the later models that were closer to production exhibited performance quirks when shifting into 8th and 9th gear, as well as with skipping gears, which the transmission is designed to do.
An individual familiar with the program said 9th gear is almost "hypothetical" and another person added that, while it can be engaged in highway driving, it'll likely shift down to 8th gear at higher speeds because the drag starts to slow the car down.
While all of this sounds like bad news, there's an element here that's actually a positive for Chrysler. The Jeep Liberty that the Cherokee replaces is hardly a sales success anymore and the company has promised the new vehicle will go on sale next month, yet they seem to be taking seriously the need to perfect it before this happens.
If I'm being generous, it's a sign that Chrysler has learned from past sins and the rocky Dart launch.
"They want the launch to be bulletproof and not just here but in the export markets, and literally, this is a global vehicle and they know why it's gotta be right," said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics. "This is the thing that's going to reset Jeep in a lot of overseas market because it's a new modern Jeep and the locals are going to know it's coming from the Fiat group."
While the delay is troublesome for those involved, and I'm sure some journalist is peeved he isn't going to get his frequent flyer miles, the bad press now is better than the terrible press later.
Besides, the delay allows them more time to get on the case of any suppliers who are producing less-than-stellar parts.
Until the new fix comes, there sit a large number of Jeeps in Chrysler's possession that are undeliverable.