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Chrysler CEO sees big things for 2 Toledo-built models


Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of Chrysler, says the Dodge Nitro, to be produced in Toledo, is 'going to be a big hit. It's going to be a great, great vehicle.'


DETROIT - Tom LaSorda is sure customers will be "blown away" by the redesigned Jeep Wrangler.

Its two-door version is scheduled to make its worldwide debut today.

But the Chrysler chief's favorite among 10 vehicles to be unveiled at auto shows this year is another that will call Toledo home: the upcoming Dodge Nitro.

"I think that's going to be a big hit," Mr. LaSorda told reporters during a roundtable interview in downtown Detroit yesterday.

"It's going to be a great, great vehicle."

The Chrysler president and chief executive later yesterday helped begin media previews for the North American International Auto Show by taking the stage for two concepts, the Dodge Challenger pony car and Chrysler Imperial luxury sedan.

Today Chrysler will unveil the redesigned Wrangler, which will be built this year along with a four-door version at a $900 million multifactory plant nearing completion off Stickney Avenue, and the Jeep Compass to be made in Belvidere, Ill.

The Cobo Center show opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 22.

"Once people see the new Wrangler, they're going to be blown away by what this thing looks like and what it can do," Mr. LaSorda told reporters yesterday while in a private office near the Jeep display.

Mr. LaSorda heaped even more praise on the Nitro, Dodge's first entry into the growing compact sport utility vehicle market. (The SUV is expected to be unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show next month.)

The Toledo-made Jeep Liberty, which, starting in August, will share Toledo North Assembly Plant with the Nitro, also earned kudos from the Chrysler chief. Last year, the Liberty recaptured the nation's compact SUV crown from the Ford Escape.

"That's a big news story from our end and for our people who do a great job in Toledo," he said.

The Nitro, however, will not steal sales from the Liberty, even though they will compete in the same category, Mr. LaSorda predicted.

The brands are separate and have different followers, and the Liberty may even need some extra volume from an expected third production shift at Toledo North, he said.

Toledo North is gearing up to add a third shift if there is enough market demand for the two SUVs, Mr. LaSorda said. A final decision on adding a third shift could come as early as midyear, he said.

Mr. LaSorda said he plans to visit Toledo in the next few weeks to check on progress of the multifactory plant being built for the Wrangler near Toledo North.

Three companies will supply chassis and painted bodies for the two Wrangler models when production starts in July. The three are sharing costs for the complex, a first for the North American auto industry.

"I think we're going to do well on that project," Mr. LaSorda said.

Unlike Motor City rivals General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., both of which are scaling back production, Chrysler is going through a sales renaissance after its own restructuring.

Still, Chrysler is not the only automaker adding new products this year, making the market very competitive, Mr. LaSorda said.

"We'll have to fight it at the retail level, " he said.

Chinese automakers will be a "force to be reckoned with" by 2010 or 2012, although they have a ways to go to meet U.S. standards, Mr. LaSorda said.

He said he has visited automakers in China and earlier yesterday examined the first Chinese car to be displayed at the Detroit auto show, the five-passenger 7151 CK.

Geely Automobile Co. expects to sell it to the United States in 2008.

Korean automakers also have made strides, entering the U.S. market first in compact cars, then midsize cars, then SUVs, Mr. LaSorda noted.

"Can the Chinese do the same? The answer is yes," he said.

Contact Julie McKinnon at: or 419-724-6087.

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