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Published: Tuesday, 1/6/2004

Liberty loses segment s top spot

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DETROIT - DaimlerChrysler AG sold 229,283 Jeep Libertys worldwide last year, down slightly from 2002 s sales, as the compact sport-utility vehicle lost its top U.S. ranking to the Ford Escape.

But both U.S. and worldwide sales for Toledo Jeep Assembly s other product, the Jeep Wrangler, improved last year.

Last month, Chrysler sold 15,600 Libertys nationwide, a 9 percent drop compared with the year before, and 6,099 Wranglers, a 16 percent jump. To help spur sales, Chrysler this spring is adding an extended-wheelbase Wrangler model called the Unlimited and this fall is freshening all Liberty models and adding a diesel version for the United States that will offer improved fuel economy.

The Unlimited will help retain Wrangler buyers who want more cargo room and attract new buyers to the SUV, one Chrysler executive said. The diesel version of the Liberty will test whether the powertrain can be as successful in the United States as it is in Europe, said Eric Ridenour, executive vice president of development.

“It s a great product,” he said. “Diesels are expensive, but they also do a lot of really good things.”

December was the third consecutive month that Chrysler increased overall sales compared with the year before, and the automaker starting today is simplifying - but not escalating - its incentive program, another executive said. Qualifying buyers will get 0 percent financing for 48 months, plus $2,000 cash back on most vehicles, said Gary Dilts, senior vice president of sales.

“We see some momentum opportunities here,” he said.

The only solid evidence that the Toledo-born Jeep brand has some momentum is with the Wrangler. Chrysler sold 70,093 Wranglers nationwide last year, up 9 percent from 2002.

There were 162,987 Libertys sold in the United States last year, down 5 percent. And U.S. sales of the Jeep brand s third product, the Detroit-made Grand Cherokee that is being redesigned for the 2005 model year, dropped 7 percent to 207,479.

The Ford Escape last year surpassed the Liberty as U.S. champion of the compact SUV segment with 167,678 sales, up 15 percent from 2002. The Honda CR-V, another close competitor to the Liberty, had U.S. sales of 143,909 last year, down 2 percent.

Liberty and Wrangler sales at Ohio s largest Jeep dealership pretty much mirrored those of the nation. Although Liberty sales were down slightly for the year at Yark Automotive Group, Wrangler numbers were up, said Dave Doster, the Sylvania Township dealership s Jeep sales manager.

Overall, Jeep sales were down in the first half of last year compared with the same period in 2002, but they were up in the second half, making the years about even, Mr. Doster said. The Jeep brand through October had the two best-selling sport-utility vehicles in the Toledo area market, with Grand Cherokee coming in at No. 1 followed by the Liberty, he said, quoting the latest available statistics.

“January and February were just killer months for us,” said Mr. Doster, adding that this year s start is more promising. “I m really encouraged.”

December was the Jeep brand s best month nationwide with 44,873 sold, down 6 percent from the record-setting December, 2002. Wrangler was the only Jeep that posted a December sales gain for the brand, which ended the year down 4 percent at 440,559.

Worldwide last year, Chrysler sold 229,283 Libertys - well ahead of the 200,000 the automaker had expected to make annually - and 82,156 Wranglers. In 2002, the automaker sold 230,897 Libertys and 75,327 Wranglers. Virtually all of the two Jeep brands are made at Toledo Jeep.

Outside the United States, Liberty sales soared to 66,296 from 59,685 in 2002. Comparable Wrangler sales also increased to 12,063 from 10,976.



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