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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

Dealers, workers hope for go-ahead for Jeep pickup

Industry experts say several market factors will help decide the future of DaimlerChrysler s Jeep Gladiator concept.
Industry experts say several market factors will help decide the future of DaimlerChrysler s Jeep Gladiator concept.

Jeep dealers want a pickup truck again after more than a decade of having just three models to sell, and Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant workers would love to build one again.

DaimlerChrysler AG will monitor media and public reaction to the Jeep Gladiator pickup to be unveiled today in Detroit as officials decide whether to again make a concept reality. But industry experts say other market factors will play into whether such a vehicle will become part of the automaker s efforts to expand the Toledo-born brand.

The so-called sport-utility truck market offers just three true alternatives: the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Subaru Baja, and Hummer H2 SUT. Yet the use of crew cabs on pickups such as the Dodge Dakota and Chevrolet Colorado has blurred the lines between SUVs and pickups, widening the field of players, one auto analyst said.

That is where the true competition is coming from, said Jeff Brodoski of J.D. Power and Associates.

Automakers, though, have started to branch out into such low-volume niche vehicles based on the platforms of higher-selling products in factories built to be flexible, another industry expert said.

The point is to be profitable by keeping those factories such as Toledo Jeep s nearly four-year-old Jeep Liberty plant and another under construction next door for the Jeep Wrangler humming with multiple products, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

You re going to see more and more plants do that, he said. If it doesn t cost that much to develop the product and you can run it in an existing facility, it makes a lot of sense to do it that way.

Additional products, pickups or otherwise, are nothing new for Toledo Jeep and the work force currently building the Liberty and Wrangler.

As part of a $2.1 billion expansion of Toledo Jeep, Chrysler is to add a Dodge derivative off the Liberty chassis and a four-door version of the Wrangler as well as redesigns of the existing SUVs.

A team is to begin preparation in March to launch two vehicles next year, and the Liberty will be redesigned in the spring of 2007, said Dan Henneman, Jeep unit chairman for United Auto Workers Local 12.

A Jeep pickup would be both a good seller and a good addition to Toledo Jeep, said Bruce Baumhower, Local 12 s president.

The original Gladiator pickup truck was a 1963 model and was built on the same platform as the Wagoneer. The original Gladiator pickup truck was a 1963 model and was built on the same platform as the Wagoneer.
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This would be the fifth [vehicle], and we want it, he said.

Pickups were part of the Jeep lineup and the Toledo plant s domain for nearly five decades, starting with the Willys in 1947 and ending with the Comanche s demise in 1992. The original Gladiator was introduced as a 1963 model and was built on the same platform as the Wagoneer.

Chrysler ended up nixing plans for a pickup version of the longer-bodied Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which dealers began selling last spring.

Reminiscent of the Jeep Scrambler made from the mid-1970s to mid 1980s, that pickup would have been a longer Wrangler with a cargo box plunked onto the back.

The Gladiator concept, though, has a 5-foot-8-inch bed that can be expanded by a foot with a mid-gate and to 8 feet, 11 inches with the tailgate down. Although the concept was not built on the Wrangler chassis, it is billed as having the famed SUV s capability along with the brand s traditional solid axles.

Other features of the rugged Gladiator concept include an open-air canvas top, stowaway rear cushion, and 2.8-liter, 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine. It is 205 inches long and 76.6 inches wide.

The vehicle is to be shown for the first time today to reporters during media events leading up to Saturday s opening to the public of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Media previews began today.

Ford Motor Co. is unveiling a concept for the next Ford Explorer Sport Trac at the Detroit show that will signal its plans for the sport-utility truck. And although the Subaru Baja s sales continue to decline 7,316 were sold last year, down 32 percent General Motors Corp. has indicated that pickups are a key part of the brand s future.

One of the stars of last year s Detroit show was the Hummer H3T concept vehicle, which gave a clear hint to styling for the upcoming H3. Mr. Brodoski of J.D. Power said the Gladiator looks like Jeep s answer to the fierce competitor.

You can definitely see that, if the two were in the market, they would go head to head, he said. If built off the Wrangler platform, for example, a Jeep pickup could be two to three years off, he said.

Hummer and Jeep, both of which trace their lineage to Willys-Overland Motor Co. and Toledo, are to cross paths in the market with mid-size SUVs priced in the $30,000s this year. Hummer is coming down in size and price with the H3, and Jeep is climbing back up with the three-row Jeep Commander built off the Grand Cherokee platform at a Detroit factory.

Dealers realize a Jeep pickup would be a low-volume niche vehicle, but such products add incremental sales and all-important excitement for the brand, said Ralph Mahalak, Jr., sales manager at Monroe Dodge Chrysler Jeep.

Chrysler successfully created buzz with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, an SUV outfitted with off-road equipment often added by drivers, he said.

They re fun products, Mr. Mahalak said. Jeep needs a couple of new vehicles if they re going to expand their market share.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.

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