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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2010

Chrysler leaves Toledo-made Dodge Nitro's future unclear

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

But the future of one of those three - the Dodge Nitro - is less clear than those of its line mate, the Jeep Liberty, or the iconic Jeep Wrangler.

As it prepares for the 2012 model year, Chrysler has yet to announce if the Nitro will continue beyond the models now in production. Despite a 16 percent sales increase from an anemic 2009, the Nitro officially is "under consideration" for Chrysler's Toledo Assembly Complex.

A Dodge brand spokesman did not return calls seeking comment Monday on plans for Nitro.

Chrysler executives laid out an ambitious five-year product and financial plan nearly a year ago that spelled out how the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based automaker would move from bankruptcy to a sizable profit by 2014. Chrysler took the unusual step of disclosing some future products plans, including interior and exterior refinements for the Wrangler in 2010 and 2011 and a brand new Jeep Liberty for 2013.

But the Nitro - long criticized for "stealing sales" from the stronger-selling Liberty - was listed only as "under consideration."

Chrysler's previous management indicated in September, 2008, that the SUV would be phased out by the 2012 model year and "merged" with the Liberty. However, the executive who said that no longer is with the automaker, which is now controlled by Italian automaker Fiat SpA.

Although Chrysler made more than 113,000 Dodge Nitros in 2007, the automaker was on pace to make only 27,000 this year, despite introducing three new trim packages and a different engine.

The Nitro Heat, Detonator, and Shock were introduced in January at the North American International Auto Show and have helped improve sales of the vehicles, dealers said.

"When they put those packages together, that did help the Nitro sales," Dave Doster, sales manager at Yark Automotive Group in Sylvania Township, said.

Joseph Phillippi, a longtime industry analyst with AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J., said the Nitro is an "off-road-capable sport utility vehicle in a world that is demanding ever fewer, and those that want something that's all-wheel drive are more than happy" driving car-based crossovers like the hot-selling Chevrolet Equinox.

Mr. Phillippi said it's unclear how many current Nitro sales would migrate to Liberty if Chrysler discontinued the Dodge vehicle a year from now.

But in an industry now highly focused on profitability and manufacturing only what can be sold, any sales losses would be likely to affect jobs in Toledo.

In a memo to members last week, Jeep Unit chairman Dan Henneman and his fellow officers indicated that the Toledo North plant's single shift had additional shut-down weeks scheduled for 2011.

"There are still 13 down weeks in the schedule for 2011, which is subject to change based on the orders," Mr. Henneman wrote. The plant has had six such down weeks so far this year, including two weeks for model changeover, Chrysler spokesman Jodi Tinson said.

Mr. Henneman said Monday that the additional scheduled down weeks are not unusual and may likely disappear as sales continue to grow.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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