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Published: Thursday, 11/13/2003

Liberty recall not expected to cut into sales

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The recall, to fix a suspension problem, is the third for the Toledo-built sport-utility vehicle. The recall, to fix a suspension problem, is the third for the Toledo-built sport-utility vehicle.
DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

For the third time, Laura O Brien will have to take her 2002 Jeep Liberty Sport in for repairs because of a recall, but the Temperance resident isn t ready to trade in her Toledo-made sport-utility vehicle during that dealership visit.

Although Ms. O Brien said she is concerned with the latest recall - to fix a problem with the suspension - she understands that newly designed vehicles often have problems.

And although she will take the recalls into consideration the next time she shops for an SUV, they won t stop her from thinking about Liberty again, she said.

“It s a concern about its safety, and I m wondering if I m going to get the notice about it pretty soon,” Mrs. O Brien said.

“I m happy with it otherwise. ... It hasn t totally soured me.”

DaimlerChrysler AG announced last week that all Libertys built through March, or about 438,000 worldwide, are being recalled for a problem involving the lower ball-joint seal.

Chrysler has received about 50 complaints but no reports of injuries about the problematic part, which can become damaged and cause loss of control of the vehicle.

The automaker and dealership managers, meanwhile, don t expect recall issues will depress Liberty sales.

“There haven t been a number of recalls on the vehicle,” said Chrysler spokesman Angela Ford. “I don t think it s going to hurt sales.”

One expert agreed. As long as Chrysler handles the process well and doesn t follow up with more recalls, the latest Liberty fix shouldn t pose a problem, said Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific, a consulting firm in Tustin, Calif.

That doesn t mean an easy trail is ahead for the compact SUV, he said.

“Liberty has other problems in that it s in one of the most competitive segments in the market,” he explained.

Liberty s U.S. sales are down 4 percent through October this year compared with 2002, at 133,364.

Sales evened out last month after a dismal 38 percent drop in September compared with the year before.

Some Liberty buyers have called Yark Automotive Group for details about the recall, but the recall hasn t driven off potential customers, said Jack Streit, a manager at the multi-brand Sylvania Township dealership.

At Bowling Green Jeep Lincoln Mercury, general sales manager Mark Campbell said customers were more alarmed about recalls when the recalls were more frequent five years ago.

Problems in both design and production, probably with a supplier, contributed to the latest recall. All of the targeted Libertys will get a heat shield, and about 318,000 of them also will get new ball joints. An additional 120,000 will at least be inspected.

The Liberty had two prior U.S. recalls, both announced in late 2001, several months after production began at the Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant. One recall involved problems with a locking clip attaching a lower section of the driver s-side instrument panel and affected 72,000 vehicles, and the other involved the possibility of a delay in the deployment of the driver s-side air bag, affecting 102,000.

Separate from a recall, some of the first sellable Liberty models built received alterations before they the vehicles were released to customers.

Air-conditioner compressors were tested for problems, noisy shocks were replaced, and all two-wheel-drive models were equipped with wider tires.

Some Liberty drivers said yesterday they are concerned with potential safety hazards, such as delayed airbag deployment and damaged ball-joint seals, yet like Ms. O Brien are content with their SUVs.

The biggest concern for Ms. O Brien was the report of an accident during a magazine rollover test, which in part prompted Chrysler to lower the Liberty s suspension by about an inch in April, 2002. A friend was in an accident with her Liberty two years ago, she said.



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