New Jeep Cherokee still work in progress

Vehicle tweaked, to hit dealerships in September

Sergio Marchionne spoke highly of the work force assembling the new Cherokee at the Toledo plant.
Sergio Marchionne spoke highly of the work force assembling the new Cherokee at the Toledo plant.

Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne said Tuesday that engineers are still making tweaks to the transmission in the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee, but the vehicle should begin hitting dealerships in September. He said dealers will receive “sufficient quantities” of the Cherokee in October.

From the start, Chrysler has said the Cherokee would be available in the year’s third quarter — and if they are indeed available in September, the company would meet that deadline. However, last month the chief executive of the Jeep brand said he expected the first models in dealerships by August, something that now looks unlikely.

Production of the Cherokee began June 24 in Toledo after a delay of about a month. The company never gave a specific reason for the delay, with officials saying only it was a complicated launch that they needed to get exactly right. However, powertrain concerns were reportedly among the reasons production was held back.

The Cherokee is the first Chrysler vehicle to get an all-new nine-speed transmission. The advanced gearbox is part of what helps the Cherokee deliver up to 31 miles per gallon highway, a huge improvement over the discontinued Jeep Liberty, which it replaces in Jeep’s lineup.

Speaking to analysts and media on a Tuesday conference call, Mr. Marchionne acknowledged the transmission has made the Cherokee launch more difficult. He said the company has been in “intense dialog” with the German company that designed the transmission to ensure the vehicle is as close to perfect as it can be. Work is ongoing to tweak the final elements that control the way the transmission operates, he said.

“It’s a complex installation because of the fact the Cherokee obviously also comes in an off-road-capable, all-wheel-drive version. The performance of this transmission and the way in which it functions is not a standard front-wheel drive. We need to make sure this transmission is capable of doing all the things we’d expect out of a Jeep,” Mr. Marchionne said.

Still, the CEO maintained that the process of getting the Cherokee to market has been no different than that of other vehicles.

“Just to sort of pacify concerns you may have had about this calibration issue, these things go on all the time in any product launches,” he said.

Vehicles that have already been built — the manager of the Toledo Assembly complex said last week the plant was producing about 150 Cherokees a day — are being held back from dealers. Mr. Marchionne said those vehicles will be recalibrated, but he said it’s a relatively easy process that doesn’t involve altering any hardware.

Though Chrysler certainly needs to get the Cherokee to market as soon as possible, at least one expert says the delays aren’t particularly worrisome.

“We’re not talking months, we’re talking weeks,” said Matt Degen, a senior assistant editor at Kelley Blue Book. “This is an all-new vehicle, all-new transmission. If this was just a refresh it might raise a few more eyebrows. I don’t think this does. This is a very important vehicle for them and I get the sense they want it right from the get-go, right out of the gate.”

Through the year’s first six months, Chrysler has sold 1.2 million vehicles worldwide. The automaker is targeting full-year sales of 2.6 million, and the Cherokee figures to play a crucial role in hitting that.

“The second half is not doable without a proper launch of the Cherokee. It’s an absolute necessary condition for the achievement of the targets that we set for ourselves,” Mr. Marchionne said.

The Chrysler boss [Mr. Marchionne] did speak highly of the Toledo work force that will be building the vehicle.

“I was in Toledo last Thursday to launch the new Cherokee and I can tell you the level of commitment and enthusiasm that I saw on the line, even with the new hires when we brought on the second shift of about 1,200 people, was something which I’ve not seen in a long time.”

Also on the conference call, Chrysler said it had set aside $151 million to cover the recall action on 1.5 million Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.

Chrysler agreed last month to equip the recalled vehicles with a trailer hitch to add an extra layer of protection in a rear-end collision after a brief but very public spat with federal regulators.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at:

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