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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

Toledo gets good economic news with start-up of Jeep Liberty

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

One of the brightest spots in a local economy slowed by recession shines from a sprawling modern white complex off I-75 in North Toledo - DamilerChrysler's new Jeep plant.

It has already has pumped out more than 170,000 Jeep Libertys, about 30,000 more than expected.

Those Libertys are making a steady exit from dealerships nationwide and in the rest of North America. Plus, the compact sport-utility vehicle is starting to make an entrance in foreign markets, where more than 16,000 have been shipped bearing the name of its long-lived predecessor, Cherokee.

Layoffs, excessive overtime, and a potential strike caused 2001 to be shaky for Toledo Jeep Assembly. DaimlerChrysler cut about 1,770 of 5,650 temporary and permanent jobs when Jeep Cherokee production ended at the old Jeep plant on Jeep Parkway and Jeep Wrangler output was scaled back.

Relief is on the way, though, even if it isn't in the form of a third Liberty production shift, as many had hoped.

Toledo Jeep is calling back 550 laid-off workers, and the new plant is readying to cut back to nine-hour days while starting a rotating break program. Plus, a third Liberty model called Renegade and another Wrangler model called Rubicon are being added.

Liberty sales continue to please workers and DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. executives, who haven't had to resort to zero percent financing or other such incentives to move the SUV. It's the only vehicle in the Chrysler lineup with those bragging rights.

“People are excited with the sales,” said Chrysler spokesman Michele Tinson.

Run from three factories - the new Toledo North Assembly Plant, the adjoining Stickney Avenue plant, and part of the remaining Jeep Parkway facility - Toledo Jeep is a mix of new and old.

The new $750 million factory began in April making the Liberty, which hit dealerships nationwide in May. Its two counterparts continue to build the Jeep Wrangler.

Wrangler production was cut by a quarter last year because of slow sales, which totaled 68,830 nationwide, but the company is trying to infuse the model with new life. Toledo Jeep this year will begin making the Wrangler Rubicon, a model offering many features serious off-roaders demand and priced somewhere above $20,080.

The Liberty, meanwhile, has received accolades from publications and groups. American Woman Road & Travel named the Liberty the “Best-in-Class SUV,” for example, and it won a “Best of What's New” nod from Popular Science and “Design & Engineering Award” from Popular Mechanics.

The Liberty has had some rough times, too. AutoWeek magazine reported the Liberty was the first to roll over in a steering and handling test performed on hundreds of cars and light trucks in the last decade.

The SUV has a increasing field of competitors - including the Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Saturn Vue, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V - to go up against, said Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants in Vista, Calif.

The Liberty is priced, sized, and outfitted to be successful, he said, which is good news both for Toledo Jeep and the financially struggling Chrysler unit.

The Liberty Sport starts at $16,450 for a two-wheel drive model, and the Liberty Limited Edition, $21,210.

“Despite the rigors of the economy, it's going to sell,” Mr. Wangers said. “It's one of the few, relatively few, vehicles that Chrysler will make money on.”

That's good news for Toledo as well.

Toledo Jeep has about 4,500 employees.



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