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Published: Saturday, 2/12/2005

Analysts: New SUV likely on way here

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The Dodge Nitro SUV, a concept vehicle that is shown here
from the rear, is expected to provide customers an alternative
in between the Jeep Liberty and the Dodge Durango. The Dodge Nitro SUV, a concept vehicle that is shown here from the rear, is expected to provide customers an alternative in between the Jeep Liberty and the Dodge Durango.
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As DaimlerChrysler AG was unveiling the Dodge Nitro as a concept to reporters in Chicago, dealers gathered at the automaker's Auburn Hills headquarters were led to believe the compact sport-utility vehicle was a definite go, one local dealer says.

Ralph Mahalak, Jr., sales director at Monroe Dodge Chrysler Jeep, said yesterday his impression from the Thursday meeting with Chrysler officials was that the Nitro is the "100 percent real deal" as the Dodge to be produced at Toledo Jeep Assembly next summer, not a concept.

Publicly, Chrysler says it will gauge reaction to the Nitro - which is on display at the Chicago Auto Show through Feb. 20 at McCormick Place - before deciding whether to turn the concept into reality. Meanwhile, some industry analysts told The Blade the five-seat Nitro featuring a bold stance and signature chrome cross-hair grille likely is the Dodge bound for Toledo Jeep, perhaps with some slight modifications.

Various local Dodge dealership officials yesterday said they welcome the addition.

"I'm real excited about it," said Kevin Sheehan, general sales manager of Treadway Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Findlay. "It's something the Dodge dealer needs."

Said Michael Sahloff, salesman at Vin Devers Dodge Audi Mercedes-Benz in Sylvania: "Dodge has waited a very long time for a midsize SUV to come out."

The Nitro is slightly larger than the Jeep Liberty, which will share its 4-year-old home and basic underpinnings with a Dodge next summer as part of a $2.1 billion expansion of Toledo Jeep. The expansion will double the number of Toledo-built vehicles to four, including the redesigned Jeep Wrangler to be produced starting next spring at a $900 million multifactory plant being built and a four-door Jeep at that plant in 2007.

Having an SUV smaller than the Durango will allow Dodge to compete with the Ford Escape, said Mr. Sahloff of Vin Devers. The Escape has been the nation's top-selling compact SUV in recent years, beating the Liberty and other competitors.

And for dealerships like Treadway that have both Dodge and Jeep, the new SUV will provide customers an alternative in between the Liberty and the Durango, Mr. Sheehan said.

There will be some overlap between compact Dodge and Jeep SUVs, dealers and analysts said, but not much.

Whichever one customers choose will benefit both Toledo Jeep and Chrysler, they added.

Though Chrysler has been able to recapture some male buyers with the Jeep Liberty Renegade model, which has a taller grille, a flatter hood, and other rugged features, many men were unhappy with the curvier looks of the Jeep Cherokee's replacement, Mr. Mahalak said.

The Nitro will be attractive to male buyers, he predicted.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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