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2007 Jeep Liberty to yield to bigger, beefier '08 model



It's out with the old and in with the new at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex.

The last of the originally designed Jeep Libertys, which replaced the long-time Cherokee six years ago, is to roll off the assembly line tomorrow at the plant next to I-75. The finishing touches may not occur until Saturday, a union official said.

A redesigned Liberty, bigger and less rounded than the current version and with a retractable roof, is be in regular production the week of July 16 in Toledo. They will be 2008 models. The plant also makes Dodge Nitros, and Jeep Wranglers are made next door.

"We love it," said Dan Henneman, the top United Auto Workers leader at Toledo Jeep. "It's one of better-looking Jeeps built in Toledo.

"We're extremely excited about the new Liberty coming out. All of our members like the new Jeep. It's bigger, beefier, and has more room than the old Liberty."

With nearly a two-inch longer wheelbase, larger cargo space, and more legroom, the new Liberty underwent a fairly dramatic overhaul, with a design more like the Cherokee and traditional Jeep brand than the old Liberty.

It has rain-sensing wipers; the back door lifts up rather than swings sideways like the current vehicle, and the spare tire is mounted underneath the sport utility vehicle rather than on the back door.

The optional full-open canvas roof, called a Sky Slider, can be opened from the front or back to expose both front and rear-seat passengers to the elements.

The SUV will come in two four-wheel drive systems and be available in Sport and Limited versions.

The original model, analysts and others have said, was geared more to attract women, who often stayed away from the Cherokee's more rugged, four-wheel drive image.The new SUV was pictured in The Blade in October from a private-spy photographer and was unveiled by the company in April at the New York International Auto Show.

The vehicle will be on dealer lots in late summer or early fall, a DaimlerChrysler AG spokesman said. The list price for the vehicle will be announced next month. The price for a 2007 Liberty starts at $22,260.

Toledo Jeep has been making pilot vehicles of the new Liberty, which won't be sold to the public, for five months, Mr. Henneman said.

The new model is the first change in the Liberty since Chrysler started making them in 2001 in a new factory complex east of Stickney Avenue.

It is the third vehicle Toledo Jeep has launched in about a year - starting with the redesigned Wrangler and its expanded 4-door version last summer and then the Dodge Nitro in the fall.

Toledo Jeep has about 3,400 Chrysler workers plus another 820 workers at on-site supplier-run factories that help make the Wrangler. The new vehicles have helped attract about 2,300 more jobs at other Jeep suppliers located around Toledo, Mr. Henneman said.

The Toledo-built Jeep brand has been among the few bright spots in Chrysler's line-up. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, Commander, Patriot, and Compass are made at plants elsewhere.

Last month, the vehicles helped boost the company's sales by 4 percent to 221,164. The number of Wranglers sold was 12,333, a record for the month and up 114 percent from a year earlier. There were 7,654 Libertys sold, down 39 percent for the same month in 2006.

Sales of the Liberty peaked in 2002, when 171,200 were sold nationwide. Sales have since steadily fallen, with 133,557 sold in the United States last year.

Erich Merkle, an auto analyst with IRN Inc., said sales of the redesigned Liberty will not reach the levels the SUV achieved in the early years of production in part because of competition within the Jeep brand - the hot-selling four-door Wrangler made in Toledo.

"The Liberty is going to have a tough road ahead. If I was Chrysler, I would be very cautious not to overproduce," he said.

"This is not a dig against the Liberty. It is just the fact that the Wrangler four-door is doing so well for them."

The Wrangler is practical for a family, he said, but retains the rough, four-wheeling image of the Jeep brand.

"You can contemplate having a Wrangler and having a couple kids at the same time," he said.

The Wrangler factories will be shut down for the week of July 16, and return to make the 2008 models. The new Dodge Nitros, made on the same lines as the Liberty, will begin production the week of July 16.

Contact Mark Reiter at:

or 419-724-6096.

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