DETROIT — The next-generation Jeep Wrangler is in for some changes as Chrysler Group works to squeeze better fuel economy out of its most recognizable vehicle.
Specifically, the next Wrangler needs to be lighter and offer better powertrain options, Chrysler Group Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne said on Monday.
That said, some things with Wrangler won’t change. Most importantly for Toledo, that includes where it is built.
PHOTO GALLERY: North American International Auto Show
Speaking to reporters at the North American International Auto Show, Mr. Marchionne repeated his promise Monday that the Wrangler will not be built anywhere other than Toledo as long as he is leading the company. Incidentally, news broke Monday that Mr. Marchionne will spend at least three more years at the company’s helm.
Sure, the Wrangler doesn’t get the best fuel economy. And no, despite significant improvements, it’s still not the smoothest thing on the highway. But as Chrysler looks down the road, the real problem with Wrangler is that the company can’t build enough of them.
Sales in the United States and internationally continue to soar. Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly Complex built a record 223,000 Wranglers in 2013, far more than the plant was ever supposed to make. With help from the United Auto Workers Local 12, the company has been creative in finding ways to boost production capacity.
But more needs to be done, and after acknowledging that fact for some time, Chrysler is seriously looking into what it can do.
“The issue is on the table now,” Mr. Marchionne said.
He didn’t detail any specific plans, but he did say it will probably require more employees. It would likely take infrastructure investments too. Whatever happens, it is “all good news for Toledo,” he said.
The decision will need to be made soon. Design and engineering plans for the new Wrangler are expected to be finalized by the end of March, with the new vehicle appearing in approximately two years.
But don’t dare call it a redesign. That implies blowing up an iconic design, and Mr. Marchionne gave assurances on Monday that he isn’t about to do that. He prefers to say the company will “substantially upgrade” Wrangler. “If we take away any of the capability of the Wrangler, I think we’ll kill that product,” he said.
Nervous Jeep fans should know that Mr. Marchionne himself drives a Wrangler, and longtime Jeep officials have said he understands the brand better than any of his recent predecessors.
Still, there will be some changes.
“We know we need to upgrade the architecture without losing the Wrangler,” he said. “We need to get some weight out. We need to make it capable of accepting better powertrains.”
Industry observers have said the company has a lot of options for improving the Wrangler’s fuel economy. Until now, Jeep has made no serious effort to remove weight from the Wrangler. The company also has transmission options and could be seriously considering the addition of a diesel option, something many Jeep fans have long championed.
Based on Mr. Marchionne’s comments Monday, it seems the Wrangler will keep its removable doors and fold-down windshield — two features that help separate a unique vehicle from a homogenized industry.
He also offered a message for the men and women who have been working 60-hour weeks to build the Wrangler.
“I will be forever thankful for the people in the Wrangler plant,” Mr. Marchionne said. “They are truly an example of a committed work force. Everything I’ve asked them to do, they’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. So, thank you.”
The current Wrangler was introduced for the 2007 model year. The vehicle got interior upgrades for the 2011 model year, and a more powerful and fuel-efficient V-6 engine for the 2012 model year. The last two model years have seen no major changes.
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