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Published: 1/12/2011

Chrysler chief says Toledo area to see investments

Sergio Marchionne, right, talks with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder during the media preview of the auto show. Mr. Marcionne said improvements are in the works for the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty. Sergio Marchionne, right, talks with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder during the media preview of the auto show. Mr. Marcionne said improvements are in the works for the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty.
CARLOS OSORIO / AP Enlarge

DETROIT — The head of Chrysler Group LLC said Tuesday that the automaker's operations in Toledo would see a significant announcement of new investment and jobs within the first half of 2011 and that the chances “were better than 50 percent” that workers making Wranglers in Toledo could soon be making a Jeep-branded pickup as well.

Sergio Marchionne, the enigmatic chief executive officer of both Chrysler and its Italian partner, Fiat SpA, told The Blade that the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty is being redesigned right now and that he expects to have some news for Toledo soon about expanding the output of its Toledo Assembly complex factory that makes the Liberty and Dodge Nitro.

“It is my sincere hope that we can give you clarity within this year, hopefully within the first six months,” he said during the media preview of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “We understand the issue, and I like the plants. Those are good plants, and what we've done there is good.”

The Chrysler CEO also said that “chances were better than 50 percent” that a Jeep-branded pickup similar to the automaker's 2005 Jeep Gladiator concept would be built alongside the Wrangler, despite protests from Chrysler's truck-only Ram brand.

Last summer, Mike Manley, who heads the Jeep brand for Chrysler, excited a dealer meeting in Florida when he rolled out the 2005 Gladiator concept in yellow paint.

“I like that vehicle. I liked it the first day I saw it. There's a better than 50 percent chance that you'll get one, regardless of what Ram says,” Mr. Marchionne said.

Officials with his truck brand, he said, are “totally peeved off at the fact that we're going to have anything that looks like a pickup truck with a Jeep brand, with a Jeep badge on it, but I actually think there's space for that vehicle.”

Any Jeep pickup would be a body-on-frame vehicle based on a Wrangler. Asked if there is production room at the Wrangler plant for such a pickup truck, Mr. Marchionne said only “Yes.” The Wrangler is made at Toledo Assembly in a group of factories neighboring the Liberty and Nitro factory.

Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, which represents Toledo Assembly workers, welcomed Mr. Marchionne's words.

“You know, what Chrysler's done in the last couple years has been amazing, and I think Toledo's going to be a major part of their turnaround,” Mr. Baumhower said.

Speaking during the previews of the Detroit auto show, where Chrysler showed off 16 newly refreshed or remade products to the automotive press, Mr. Marchionne said Chrysler had just two remaining problems in its product lineup, including one made in Toledo.

“We know we are deficient in a couple of large areas in our product lineup” he said, singling out the Dodge Caliber and Toledo-made Jeep Liberty. The Caliber, he said, will be fixed within a year and will be shown in Detroit next year.

As for the Liberty, he said, “We think we need to substantially upgrade that architecture.” It is one of the “most urgent things on our agenda,” he said.

Mr. Marchionne said the current Liberty weighs too much and needs better fuel economy. It also suffers because it is less flexible than even its weaker-selling linemate, the Dodge Nitro, he said.

Chrysler said in November, 2009, that the next Liberty, due in 2013, would ride on the same Fiat-designed framework as at least eight other vehicles, including the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 sedans. Tuesday, Mr. Marchionne reiterated that point, but assured Jeep enthusiasts that the next Liberty would retain its Jeep heritage and would have a trail-rated version available.

Asked about the future of diesel in the United States, Mr. Marchionne said his company has the know-how and the engines available to bring fuel-efficient diesel power to the U.S. market. The only issue is whether there are sufficient U.S. buyers for diesel in the passenger and light truck markets, he said. However, the Toledo-made Wrangler may be a different story.

“The [diesel] Wrangler is available [already in Europe], and that's something that we need to take a hard look at, simply because certainly the torque performance of that machine would be [attractive],” he said.

The Chrysler boss said his company would introduce a 9-speed front-wheel-drive transmission by 2013, with an 8-speed transmission expected to appear yet this year, to help raise Chrysler's fuel-efficiency standards.

Asked his opinion of the implementation of Fiat's World Class Manufacturing system in Toledo and elsewhere, Mr. Marchionne said Chrysler workers have made strides in addressing quality and efficiency issues.

“I'm pleased, not satisfied. I think we have a long way to go, but we've started,” he said. “The thing that I found most encouraging is the reaction of the work force to the introduction [of World Class Manufacturing principles]. And that's as true of Toledo as it is in the other plants.”

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or at 419-724-6091.



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