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Published: Tuesday, 1/11/2011

Jeep to remain icon in auto industry, CEO says

DETROIT — The man in charge of protecting a Jeep heritage stretching 70 years said on Monday the Toledo-made Jeep Wrangler will get an improved powertrain this year, promised a new Jeep Liberty will keep its off-road abilities, and said a Jeep pickup could return soon.

Mike Manley, president and chief executive officer of Chrysler Group LLC's Jeep brand, told The Blade on Monday at the media previews of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that Wrangler will continue to be the icon of the brand synonymous with SUVs.

"The second-fastest-growing vehicle [in terms of sales] in our portfolio for 2010 was Wrangler. When you think about that, that's huge, because not only is Wrangler the icon, and therefore its halo spreads to other vehicles, but to some extent, it is niche — when you look at the typical SUV, it doesn't have anywhere near the capability and has nothing like the heritage," Mr. Manley said.

"For us to be able to grow our sales, and for Wrangler to be able to take the second level in terms of driving that growth, I think it just bodes well for the direction we're taking our brand."

Although Wrangler sales are increasing — they were up 15 percent last year from 2009's — the sport utility vehicle still has weaknesses that will be addressed in coming models, Mr. Manley said. "The powertrain is, now with those recent changes, clearly the weakest thing on this vehicle, and we're going to address the powertrain this coming year," the Jeep CEO said. "What that will do is help continue to build the momentum of Wrangler sales."

The Wrangler's powertrain has been criticized by some Jeep enthusiasts because its 3.8-litre engine is the same one as has been in the Chrysler minivans and lacks proper torque for off-road applications. Its transmission has also been criticized for limiting fuel economy and for its off-road dynamics.

Mr. Manley excited dealers last summer at a private event in Florida when he rolled out a painted version of the automaker's 2005 Jeep Gladiator pickup truck, saying only that "you never know," what might show up on dealer lots. Mr. Manley said on Monday, "Given Jeep's heritage with pickups [the Cherokee-based Commanche was withdrawn nearly 20 years ago], it's still recent history. … I'm still very interested in a Wrangler-based pickup, but like any organization with limited resources and a number of brands, we have to be true to everybody in terms of where those investments are made."

Any Jeep-based pickup could potentially steal sales from its sister brand, Ram trucks, which would be sold on the same dealer lots.

" I continue to work on the Wrangler business case for a pickup; we're not there yet. If it reaches the right hurdles and is deemed to be the right thing to do, then you'll see it. It's something we're still working on," Mr. Manley said.

"Wrangler is so beloved in the organization that we have a wealth of ideas that continue to bubble up. Some of those ideas have a lot more merit — we've talked about a Wrangler pickup and we've talked about diesel in Wrangler."

If a Wrangler-based pickup is green-lighted, Mr. Manley said there would be room to make it on the Wrangler line in Chrysler's Toledo Assembly complex. "Today, that plant's running two shifts; there are opportunities to add further shifts to that if necessary. The demand isn't there yet," he said.

He said he continues to study a business case for a diesel-engined Wrangler for North America. Thus far, he said, different emissions standards for Europe and North America have kept diesels overseas, even as Jeep enthusiasts in the United States clamor for diesel's higher torque and extended durability in their Wranglers.

He said he hopes a new VM diesel being installed in European-bound Wranglers will meet U.S. standards. "I think what [common emissions standards] gives us in the future, and I'm not suggesting we're there yet, is an economy of scale that we haven't had in the past. If that happens, that helps the overall business case for diesel," Mr. Manley said.

As for the Jeep Liberty, which will undergo a transformation in 2013 when it begins to be built on a Fiat SpA platform, the Jeep CEO promised the unibody SUV will keep its trail-rated versions, even as it broadens its appeal to a potentially wider audience.

"It will be an absolute true Jeep," Mr. Manley said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com. or at 419-724-6091.



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