A midsized Dodge sport utility vehicle that analysts say will be made next summer at the Toledo Jeep plant was revealed yesterday at the media previews to the Chicago auto show.
If DaimlerChrysler AG builds the vehicle, or a similar one, it would be the first non-Jeep made in Toledo in about 10 years. A Chrysler spokesman said a final decision has not been made as to whether the Nitro will be the actual Dodge model that's slated to be built.
The five-passenger Dodge Nitro concept is slightly bigger than the Toledo-made Liberty, which is to share its four-year-old home and chassis with a Dodge model next summer as part of a $2.1 billion expansion of Toledo Jeep Assembly.
With a bold stance and signature chrome cross-hair grille, the Nitro is definitely a Dodge, analysts said.
While the Dodge vehicle to be built in Toledo may not have the Nitro's 20-inch wheels and other "over the top" features, it is likely to take various design cues from the concept unveiled yesterday, said auto analyst Rebecca Lindland of Global Insight Inc., an economic analysis firm in Lexington, Mass.
"I don't think it will be exactly it," she said. "I think the styling is a little over the top."
The Nitro could achieve the goal of drawing younger buyers and adding a SUV smaller than the Durango to the male-dominated Dodge brand, said auto analyst Wes Brown of Iceology, a market research firm in Los Angeles.
"It may be pretty much as is," he said. "I think it looks pretty cool."
He added: "If it's styled close to what they're showing, I think they've nailed it."
Chrysler spokesman Dianna Gutierrez said the automaker will consider reaction to the Nitro from consumers and the media before deciding to produce it.
"Right now it's just a concept vehicle," she said. "We'll take a look at it and see what happens - you just never know."
As part of Toledo Jeep's expansion, which will not add Chrysler jobs, the Jeep Wrangler will be redesigned next spring and be produced in a $900 million multifactory complex being built next to the plant that produces Libertys.
In all, the new investment in building, equipment, and vehicles is $2.1 billion.
The new complex's costs and duties will be shared by Chrysler and three key suppliers, which will provide chassis and painted bodies for the redesigned Wrangler next year and a four-door Jeep expected in 2007.
A Dodge SUV, meanwhile, will be produced at the Liberty factory, which will get added equipment in extra room built into the plant.
Chrysler officials never have said publicly what that vehicle would be or what it would look like. Production of it, however, is tentatively slated to start in July, 2006.
With supplier factories on site, Toledo Jeep will be different than other Big Three plants in North America, and the addition of a non-Jeep brand should help secure employment for the complex's 3,800 hourly workers.
The last non-Jeep made in Toledo was the Dodge Dakota pickup, made from 1993 to 1995.
Iceology's Mr. Brown said Chrysler has indicated the Dodge SUV's volume could be as high as 75,000 units a year, and it likely will steal away some Liberty buyers and be priced a little lower than the Jeep, which starts at $19,990.
Global Insight predicts Chrysler will make up to 42,000 of the Dodge SUVs in its first full year, or about a quarter of the 160,000 Libertys the firm expects to be built this year, Ms. Lindland said.
The Liberty-based SUV will be good for the Dodge brand and provide incremental sales for Chrysler despite some competition between the two Toledo-made models, Ms. Lindland said.
Jeep has dedicated customers, but some people want a softer ride and a little more space, she said.
The Nitro is roughly 1.5 inches wider than the Liberty, for example, and 4 inches longer. The concept has 32.3 cubic feet of cargo area behind the second seat, compared to 31 cubic feet for the Liberty.
The Nitro uses a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 engine as does the Liberty, but the new SUV has a cross-hair grille and flared fenders like a Dodge truck. It is four-wheel drive and has an automatic transmission.
The Toledo-born Jeep brand is in the midst of broadening its appeal, starting on the high end later this year with the seven-passenger Jeep Commander to be built in Detroit with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The Dodge Neon plant in Belvidere, Ill., is expected to start building two entry-level Jeep models next year, with a combined volume of about 75,000 units annually, Ms. Lindland said.
Both will be more car-like than existing Jeeps and aim to attract young buyers who have defected to brands like Toyota Scion, she said.
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