“It has a huge role to play,” Jeep brand Chief Executive Mike Manley said of the new vehicle. “It’s one we have to get absolutely right.”
Jeep sold a record 701,626 vehicles worldwide last year, besting its previous mark set in 1999.
In an interview Tuesday with The Blade, Mr. Manley said that while the Liberty was a good vehicle, it had become the biggest hole in Jeep’s lineup. That was an especially troubling problem when considering the Liberty was sold in the most important sport utility vehicle segment in the country.
“Of all of our vehicles in our portfolio, the one with the least [potential for increased sales] was Liberty and the one that potentially could really significantly increase our volume is its replacement,” he said.
Jeep leaders also say they believe they can sell more Wranglers in 2013 than in Jeep’s record-breaking 2012.
Mr. Manley said the new vehicle — the name remains a secret — has the potential to become Jeep’s No. 1 worldwide seller. The Grand Cherokee, which sold more than 223,000 units last year, currently holds that title, followed by the Toledo-built Wrangler.
Jeep sold 141,669 Wranglers in the United States and 194,142 worldwide.
Chrysler will first show the new SUV at the New York auto show in late March and plans to begin production in Toledo on May 23. Mr. Manley said to look for it being on sale late in the second quarter or early in the year’s third quarter. It’s too early for pricing details, he said.
Early production prototypes have been put through the paces at Moab, one of Jeep’s off-road testing locations, and Mr. Manley said the new Jeep has performed well.
He said the goal was for the new Jeep to be a better off-road vehicle than the Compass and Patriot, and it is.
“The engineers have delivered on that,” Mr. Manley said.
The size of the vehicle will remain roughly the same as Liberty, though it should have significantly more usable cabin space.
Chrysler officials assured that it will remain a Jeep in style, substance, and capability.
“There’s a capability story in every Jeep,” said Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s senior vice president of design. “There’s always the consideration for approach, departure, breakover angles. Wheel travel. Even the perceived capabilities are important. We try to communicate that through our styling. I think you’ll see that in the new car it’s going to be obvious it’s a Jeep.”
And Mr. Gilles said not to put much stock in spy photos of what’s been reported to be the Liberty replacement.
“We have some very interesting mules we’ve used on the freeways. They have nothing to do with the car,” he said.
Looking back at 2012’s record-breaking year, Mr. Manley also said the Toledo work force deserves a big portion of the credit.
“Every single month they’ve been able to exceed what I thought they’d be able to produce, all the way through ’12. That was a massive contributor to us breaking the record,” Mr. Manley said.
“The guys have done a phenomenal job,” in Toledo, he said.
Still, they’ve done it by working through planned shutdowns and loads of overtime. Jeep officials acknowledge the Toledo plant — already running beyond its intended capacity — can’t continue at that pace forever.
Asked if Jeep would consider investing elsewhere to build the Wrangler, which has been built exclusively in Toledo since 1992, Mr. Manley said it would be “premature for me to talk about the various options they’re looking at.”
Still, it doesn’t appear Chrysler will turn its back on Toledo.
On Monday, Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne said the company needs to invest in the Toledo plant “at some point,” though it wouldn’t happen until at least 2015.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.