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Published: Friday, 6/24/2011

JEEP NEARS CAPACITY AS DEMAND RISES

Fiat's push for higher global sales puts Toledo factories in overdrive

Europe major market for Chrysler's Wrangler

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Steve Guerrette works on a Jeep Wrangler at Chrysler's North Assembly Complex in Toledo in November. Chrysler says Wrangler production is up 19 percent to nearly 71,000 vehicles a year. Steve Guerrette works on a Jeep Wrangler at Chrysler's North Assembly Complex in Toledo in November. Chrysler says Wrangler production is up 19 percent to nearly 71,000 vehicles a year.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

CHELSEA, Mich. -- Workers at Chrysler Group LLC's Toledo Assembly complex may be busy for some time to come as the automaker continues to introduce Toledo-made SUVs to a new global audience.

Michael Manley, president of the Jeep brand and the man responsible for introducing products to potential customers outside North America, said Thursday he's more than a little worried that global demand for the iconic Jeep Wrangler may soon overtake the capacity of Toledo workers to make them.

"Wrangler just continues to grow and grow and grow in international markets," said Mr. Manley, who spoke to The Blade Thursday at Chrysler's massive Chelsea, Mich., proving grounds, where the automaker showed off its lineup of 16 new and refreshed vehicles to journalists.

Under Chrysler's former German owners, Daimler AG, the Wrangler largely was relegated to its North American home field, where its sales remained strong year over year and exploded strongly in 2007 with the introduction of its four-door Unlimited model.

But when current Chrysler partner Fiat SpA assumed control of the bankrupt automaker two years ago this month, it looked to the Toledo-built Wrangler to once again lead an American invasion of foreign shores. Fiat planned to use the Jeep brand -- and the Wrangler in particular -- to boost global sales of Chrysler products worldwide.

There's just one problem: Through the first five months of this year, Wrangler sales in the United States are up 13 percent to almost 42,000 vehicles, and production of the two and four-door SUVs is up 19 percent to nearly 71,000 vehicles. The factories at Toledo Assembly have an overall annual capacity of about 150,000 vehicles.

"I know that we could sell a lot more [Wranglers] than we sell today. We just finished working with Fiat to refranchise all of our European market, which is a huge market," Mr. Manley said. "As that process is now finished and they get back to gaining some momentum, clearly Wrangler demand is going to grow in Europe."

The Blade reported last month that Chrysler plans to upgrade the powertrain in the Wrangler for 2012, adding its award-winning Pentastar V-6 engine and a new five-speed automatic transmission, a move that will increase power and fuel economy of the vehicle. Chrysler officials haven't yet confirmed the upgrades coming to the vehicle in August, but Mr. Manley said Jeep engineers continue to search for ways to upgrade Wrangler.

He said new emission regulations coming to Europe and the United States make "a stronger business case" for introducing diesel-powered Jeeps to the United States market. He predicted that consumers could see new diesel-powered offerings from the brand in the United States within "two to four years."

Jeep engineers continue to search for other ways to improve the vehicle, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

"One way we do that … is going to events and having customers bring their cars, and I just walk around looking inside of them," said Ray Durham, vehicle line executive for rear-wheel drive SUVs. "To see what they've added, to see what work-arounds they've created for deficiencies that we didn't think about."

Mr. Durham said many Wrangler owners in the desert southwest, for example, have installed hand-sewn "cushions" above their heads to cut down the heat from the Wrangler's composite roof. Others have replaced their center storage cases with locking steel storage boxes.

"It's just little things like that," where Jeep engineers find ideas for future products, he said.

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



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