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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2006

Toledo braces for Nitro explosion

The Dodge Nitro is expected to increase production at Toledo Jeep, which is undergoing a $2.1 billion expansion. The Dodge Nitro is expected to increase production at Toledo Jeep, which is undergoing a $2.1 billion expansion.

Jim Hinds has learned to appreciate the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty Limited he bought instead of a bigger Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle.

Although historically a Dodge guy, I have come to like the size, ride, visibility, and performance of my Jeep Liberty, Mr. Hinds admitted.

But the upcoming 2007 Dodge Nitro that will share the Liberty s production line may soon replace the Columbus, Ind., man s two-year-old Jeep.

From what I ve seen and read about the Nitro, it looks as if it would give me all that I like about the Liberty but with a bit more size, possibly more power ... and, as a bonus, a way for me to return to the Dodge name.

Toledo Jeep Assembly s first non-Jeep vehicle in more than a decade, the burly Nitro will be unveiled Wednesday during media previews for the Chicago Auto Show. A concept of the compact SUV was first shown in Chicago a year ago, and The Blade was given a peek at the SUV s production version.

Although DaimlerChrysler AG disputes it, some dealers and experts said the Nitro will likely steal sales from the Liberty through defections like Mr. Hinds.

Together, however, the SUVs are expected to increase production at the Toledo Jeep complex, where the union and management plan to add a third shift and make other changes.

Toledoan Cindy Nudi, one of about two dozen United Auto Workers Local 12 members working with Chrysler engineers on early Nitro prototypes, said a successful Nitro and increased production overall are key to continued good jobs for her son and others at Toledo Jeep.

I believe it s going to hit big, said Ms. Nudi, who has 26 years with Chrysler. I m hoping it hits real big.

Many agree that the Nitro s timing is good, as high gas prices continue to plague consumers, driving them away from larger SUVs.

The Nitro will get 18 miles to a gallon in the city and 23 on the highway with the 3.7-liter V-6, while the 4.0-liter V-6 will get 17 miles to a gallon in the city and 21 on the highway.

Overall, the brawny Nitro is longer and wider than the Liberty, and it has more cargo room. One of the Nitro s premier features, available on the SLT and R/T models, is a sliding cargo floor that can hold up to 400 pounds.

The SLT interior features a silver control console with white gauges and a DVD-based satellite navigation system. Sport seats are covered in finely trimmed leather. The SLT interior features a silver control console with white gauges and a DVD-based satellite navigation system. Sport seats are covered in finely trimmed leather.

Mr. Hinds, who is interested in the 4.0-liter V-6 Nitro, said he hopes the SUV s front seats will be longer than the Liberty s and have lower back support. In any case, he prefers the Nitro s exterior design over the Liberty s.

It has both the distinctive Dodge look and more of a truck appearance, Mr. Hinds said.

Dealers such as Archer Dodge in Stafford, Texas, pine for the Nitro, which should help recapture some buyers lost when the brand s only SUV, the Durango, was enlarged a couple of years ago, said David Lantz, the dealership s Internet sales manager.

Archer Dodge routinely suggests to customers looking for a smaller SUV that they go to an Archer Auto Group Jeep store for a Liberty. But sometimes they wind up at a Ford or Toyota franchise instead, Mr. Lantz said. The Nitro will keep them on the Dodge lot and may even lure some customers looking at SUVs from Toyota, Honda, and other import brands, he said.

The Nitro is going to be an important vehicle for us, Mr. Lantz said.

Chrysler chief Tom LaSorda is calling the Nitro his favorite among 10 vehicles to be introduced this year, including two-door and four-door versions of the Toledo-made Jeep Wrangler. The Dodge and Jeep brands differ enough that Liberty sales won t suffer from the Nitro s entry into the market, Mr. LaSorda told The Blade.

Industry expert John Wolkonowicz agreed, at least to a point. There will be little cross-shopping between the two SUVs, although sales of the segment-leading Liberty will likely be hurt by increased competition from more small truck and car-based SUVs overall, said the North American market analyst for Global Insight.

Dodge customers are often blue-collar workers and NASCAR fans, as opposed to the typically white-collar, off-roading Jeep buyers. The slightly larger Nitro will be favored by families, Mr. Wolkonowicz said.

It s big enough to be useful and small enough to be reasonably economical, he said. If [dealers] had it right now, they d be selling a lot of them.

Pricing for the Nitro will be released later this year. Liberty pricing starts at $21,630.

Chrysler has done a good job of differentiating the designs of the two SUVs, which will compete with the likes of the Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4, said Matthew Vicenzi, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.

The only questionable move on Chrysler s part, Mr. Vicenzi said, is not building a car-based compact SUV, commonly called a crossover, instead of a truck-based one. The upcoming Dodge Caliber, however, will meet some of that demand on the low end, he said.

That s not really Dodge s mantra right now, Mr. Vicenzi said of crossovers.

Production of sales-floor Nitros is to begin in Toledo in August, and Mr. Wolkonowicz estimated 32,000 will be sold nationwide this year and 82,000 next. (Like the Liberty, the Nitro will also be sold in other countries.)

Liberty s U.S. sales will decline, though, dropping from 166,883 last year to 144,000 this year, Mr. Wolkonowicz predicted.

Next year, when the Liberty is redesigned and actually shares the same basic design as the Nitro, Jeep dealers nationwide will sell 68,000 of the existing model and 52,000 of the new, the firm estimates.

Adding a second vehicle to the north part of the Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant is advantageous both for Chrysler and the local complex, Mr. Wolkonowicz said. Having two vehicles helps during market declines of one, he said.

Toledo North started building and painting Nitro bodies last year, before finishing the early prototypes by hand. With additional equipment installed for the Nitro, prototypes will be built from start to finish on the line by spring, said Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler s executive vice president of manufacturing.

The Nitro s addition is part of a $2.1 billion expansion of Toledo Jeep, which calls for doubling the number of vehicle models made in Toledo to four in exchange for allowing suppliers to do more work on site.

The expansion includes a $900 million multi-factory plant that is getting ready to build two-door and four-door versions of the redesigned Jeep Wrangler, with other companies supplying Chrysler with chassis and painted bodies.

Jeep workers also agreed to give up some Toledo North jobs to suppliers too. The factory will no longer have a tire room, for example, eliminating about 30 hourly jobs on two shifts.

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

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