DETROIT — Chrysler Group LLC will try to relieve some of the pressure on its Toledo Assembly plant’s busy Wrangler line by adding 25 workers per shift to produce an extra 100 vehicles per day, union officials said Tuesday.
The plant, the only place in the world the Jeep Wrangler is built, has been up against the firewall, trying to build enough models to meet surging demand for some time. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Chrysler and partner company Fiat SpA, said Monday at the North American International Auto Show that the automaker has only about a 30-day supply of Wranglers as orders continue to soar.
In an interview Tuesday, Dan Henneman, the United Auto Workers Jeep unit chairman, said the plan to increase hourly production from 40 to 45 vehicles was recently signed off on by company officials. Adding workers on each of its two shifts would allow the company to speed up the assembly line slightly.
“We are working right now to increase our line speed by five jobs an hour, adding 25 new people per shift to the line,” Mr. Henneman said. “That’s our goal by June.”
The plan outlined by Mr. Henneman could not be confirmed through Chrysler public relations team Tuesday evening.
The entire Jeep portfolio enjoyed a strong 2011, with sales rising 44 percent over 2010. That easily bested the industry’s 11 percent sales growth and the sport utility segment’s 20 percent growth.
The company hasn’t yet released international sales numbers, but Jeep CEO Mike Manley said the brand had its best year ever in terms of sales volume. “We grew 17 percent and what I was very pleased with when I look back at the year is we continued to see growth in the direction of our 2009 plan,” he said.
Jeep now accounts for about 60 percent of Chrysler’s overseas sales, up from 40 percent three years ago.
And while company officials don’t see U.S. sales to continue growing at that breakneck pace, they expect to continue outpacing the industry as a whole — and the Wrangler figures to play a strong role in that.
Figuring out how to build more Wranglers has been on the minds of Chrysler and Jeep officials.
Mr. Marchionne said the company looked into adding a third shift at its Toledo facility, but doing that would only add “marginal improvements” to the plant’s production capacity under the current arrangement. He said part of that was because of “supplier issues,” but didn’t elaborate.
Jodi Tinson, a Chrysler spokesman who handles manufacturing, said a barrier to extensively adding production is the supply chain’s ability to meet the demands for the additional capacity.
The company is addressing those issues as they evaluate how to increase production, she said.
Union officials feel it is unlikely that Toledo will see a third shift, though at least publicly, Jeep officials haven’t ruled it out.
“If Wrangler demand continues to grow at the rate that we’ve seen in 2011, obviously we’re going to have to look at our options and one of our options is a third shift,” Jeep’s Mr. Manley said. “We as a company tend to not talk too much about that until we’ve made our decision, because clearly it’s a big impact on a community.”
As for the Toledo-built Jeep Liberty, production is still expected to end sometime this year, and officials say a replacement model will be in showrooms next year. The automaker has kept specifics of that model close to the vest. Aside from its originating from a Fiat platform, little has gotten out. Mr. Manley wasn’t eager to change that.
“It’s such an important vehicle for us, we have to get it right,” he said.
In Jeep enthusiast circles, there’s been concern and debate over whether the replacement will give up its off-road bona fides for a more carlike ride to appeal to international buyers.
To that question, Mr. Manley fired back one of his own.
“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Do you think Grand Cherokee’s a Jeep?”
That’s rhetorical, of course. In Jeep’s eyes, the new Grand Cherokee stays true to the company’s spirt and go-anywhere capability while adding to its quality and on-road manners.
“I think we did it successfully with Grand Cherokee,” he said. “We will do it successfully with the Liberty replacement. As always, I listen to our Jeep customers, we respond to them, and we try to produce vehicles they’re very happy with and expand the Jeep family.”
Ed Hellwig, an editor with automotive research Web site Edmunds.com, said ahead of the auto show that Jeep has to be careful with what it does to the Liberty successor, especially in light of this year’s sales, which were up 35 percent.
“If they were going to do something drastically different they might be a little more hesitant than before, knowing their current products are resonating with buyers. You don’t want to go too far in any direction or you may lose that momentum,” he said.
Mr. Manley continues to be a supporter of a Wrangler-based pickup, and said the project is “something we’re still very focused on.” A conversion kit sold through dealers has done well, giving more weight to the argument for making it a production model, he said.
Still, it’s unlikely one will emerge until the production problem is resolved and the model gets a refresh.
He also said the recent announcement of an optional diesel engine in the Grand Cherokee shows the brand is open to putting diesels in other North American Jeeps.
“There’s potential for Wrangler, but nothing really to talk about today,” he said.
He also teased a new special-edition Wrangler coming sometime this year, but gave no specifics.
The auto show opens to the public Saturday.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.