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Published: Tuesday, 11/18/2003

'05 'stretch' Wrangler to sell in April

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DETROIT - DaimlerChrysler AG yesterday finally acknowledged a Toledo-focused project in the works for at least 18 months: The 2005 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, a “stretch” version of the sport-utility vehicle.

The Wrangler Unlimited, to be priced between a $19,335 X and $25,085 Rubicon, will be available in full force in April, months before dealerships originally had expected. No jobs are expected to be added at Toledo Jeep Assembly to build the Unlimited, which The Blade reported more than a year ago was in the works.

The Unlimited has a wheelbase 10 inches longer than the 93.4 inches on other Wranglers and an overall length that is 15 inches greater, allowing 2 extra inches in the second-row seat as well as more cargo room, said Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler's executive vice president of sales, marketing, and service.

“You actually can take something with you,“ he told reporters and auto analysts yesterday in downtown Detroit at an unveiling of eight vehicles Chrysler will start selling next year.

One of those vehicles was a new Renegade version of the Toledo-made 2005 Jeep Liberty, which will be refreshed. Plus, the automaker noted that a 2.8-liter clean diesel version of the compact SUV will be widely available in November, a previously announced move that will supply buyers with 25 to 30 percent better fuel efficiency than achieved by the Liberty's V-6 version.

Chrysler also showed video of two concept Jeeps to be shown at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January, including the small Treo fuel-cell concept that recently made its debut in Tokyo.

The Jeep Rescue - an emergency and military vehicle that looks like an enlarged Wrangler with 37-inch tires, a 123-inch wheelbase, and other features - will be new, as will the Dodge Sling Shot sports-car concept.

The automaker prohibited photographs of the vehicles it unveiled yesterday at Cobo Hall, including the Detroit-made 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Officials also declined to talk about production and sales plans, such as how many Unlimited models will be made at Toledo Jeep and whether new or existing Wrangler customers are expected to buy them.

Longtime Jeep salesman Ron Szegedi said he anticipates the Unlimited will attract different buyers to the Toledo-born brand, such as those who don't want an SUV as big as the Liberty yet need more cargo room than currently available in a Wrangler.

“That kind of buyer is what I expect we're going to get,” the salesman at Perrysburg's Ed Schmidt Auto Group said when contacted yesterday.

Union officials at Toledo Jeep have been told about half of the Unlimited's buyers will be new to the Wrangler line and an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 of the models will be made annually, said Nick Vuich, Jeep unit chairman for United Auto Workers Local 12.

“We just hope it does well,” Mr. Vuich said when contacted yesterday.

The Wrangler Unlimited will be 30 percent quieter on road and better at crawling over rocks off road than other Wranglers, said Jeff Bell, vice president of Jeep. “In a phrase, it's more Wrangler, “ he added.

The Unlimited, which has a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds, will be shown at the Detroit auto show with both hard and soft tops. Mr. Bell said the Wrangler Sahara model will be phased out in 2004.

Although all Libertys will be refreshed for the 2005 model year, the Renegade version will have some unique features beyond a light bar and side fenders that have a bolted-on look. The 2005 Renegade is more masculine, with a straight hood line resembling the Wrangler, a different grille, front bumper lamps, skid plates, and other features.

Other 2005 vehicles besides Jeeps unveiled by Chrysler yesterday were the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum large cars, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible, Dodge Dakota pickup, and Chrysler Crossfire roadster. Chrysler yesterday kept one new 2005 vehicle under wraps until next month.

“This is more [new products] than any other manufacturer has had in any year, period,” said Chrysler President and Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche, adding the automaker will introduce 25 new products in the next 36 months.

Remaining in question is whether Toledo Jeep will continue to be home to one of those upcoming vehicles, the redesigned Wrangler to be built starting in 2006 for the 2007 model year. Local 12's Mr. Vuich said the future Wrangler's production still is a key topic of discussion during ongoing contract negotiations.

“It has not been resolved yet,” he said yesterday.



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