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Published: Wednesday, 8/10/2005

A new Jeep harks back to past

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

One glance at the Toledo-born Jeep brand's newest offering from Detroit is all it takes to recall a classic predecessor: The long-lived Jeep Cherokee.

The brawny 2006 Commander definitely is larger than the Cherokee - it's the first Jeep with three rows of seats - but its boxy lines harken back to the sport-utility vehicle that ended a nearly 18-year production run at Jeep Parkway in 2001. The Commander in coming weeks will join its fellow Detroit-made Grand Cherokee, the iconic Toledo-made Wrangler, and the Cherokee-replacing Liberty in the DaimlerChrysler AG brand's lineup.

While sharing the same wheelbase and other platform basics as the Grand Cherokee, the Commander was designed from the inside out, with boxy back corners and vertical side windows creating more room for its seven passengers, said John Sgalia, Jeep's director of the design.

"The beauty of Jeep heritage design is, you can look at it from every angle, and you know it's a Jeep," he said, recalling another Jeep that helped shape the Commander, the original Wagoneer.

What the Commander's sharp edges means for the curvier Toledo-made Liberty, which unlike the Cherokee has a larger following among female buyers than male, remains to be seen. The Liberty is to redesigned and be produced at Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant in 2007.

The Liberty admittedly is more "expressive" than what most Jeep fans thought would replace the Cherokee, but some of its distinctiveness will be retained, Mr. Sgalia said.

"I don't think anyone will be disappointed when they see the [redesigned] Liberty," he said.

The redesigned Liberty likely will be larger than the current model to appease customer complaints about roominess but probably will keep softer lines, said auto analyst Rebecca Lindland of Global Insight Inc., an economic analysis firm in Lexington, Mass.

Chrysler appears to be trying to appeal both to men and women as it expands the Jeep brand with a mix of sharp and curvy models, she said.

Next year in Belvidere, Ill.,, the automaker will begin building prototype versions of two smaller Jeeps, the Patriot and Compass Rallye. One of the car-like models has classic Jeep styling while the other has soft lines, said Ms. Lindland.

"They're trying to keep both sexes happy," she said.

Having those two Jeeps, however, may allow Chrysler to go back to sharper edges with the Liberty, said auto analyst Jeff Brodoski of J.D. Power and Associates.

"There's a chance the Liberty may go back that way slightly," he said. "It gives them the opportunity."

Hard-core off-roaders were disappointed Chrysler designed the Liberty with an independent front suspension, since solid axles make climbing rocks and other obstacles without breakage easier, but that feature likely will remain, said auto analyst Joseph Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.

The Commander and Grand Cherokee have independent front suspension. Other features of the Commander include stadium seating, allowing each row to be higher than the one in front of it; standard side-curtain airbags in all three rows; and three engine choices, including a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 or two other engines.

Both the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler have appeal to both sexes, in part because women feel secure in classic Jeep designs favored by men, Ms. Lindland said. The redesigned Wrangler due out next year from a $900 million multi-factory plant being built near Toledo Jeep, along with a four-door model based on it, will remain rugged with improved safety features, she said.

"Women can be seeing driving men's cars but not the other way around," she said with a laugh, "because we're more secure."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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