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Published: Thursday, 6/11/2009

Wrangler supplies life-support to Chrysler

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV at  the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

It was 65 years ago this month that small Toledo-made utility vehicles clawed their way east from the hellish beaches of France to help save Europe.

Now, analysts say, the venerable Jeep Wrangler may have helped save its current owner Chrysler Group LLC, born yesterday after bankruptcy and an alliance with Italian automaker Fiat SpA from the scrap heap of automotive history.

The original sport utility vehicle is one of only a handful of vehicles in North America for which sales have increased this year amid the most dramatic downturn in the auto industry in 30 years.

And as laid-off Toledo- area autoworkers prepare to return to their plants this month after a two-month shutdown, they will be met with increased demand and a dwindling supply for the Wrangler the oldest continuously made vehicle on the continent.

Wrangler is probably one of the main reasons why Chrysler is still here, said Kim Korth, an auto analyst with IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich. For the first four months of this year, Wrangler sales were above last year s sales. That s one of just [a handful of vehicles] in the country that can say that.

Conceived out of extreme necessity in 1941 the same year that Dick Cheney and Bob Dylan were born the Wrangler has evolved over the decades from a utilitarian military vehicle to a go-anywhere fun machine coveted by young adults, Ms. Korth said.

It really does have a separate identity in the mind of the consumer. There are other Jeeplike vehicles, but nothing out there that has the cachet that Wrangler has, Ms. Korth said.

Earlier this month, Chrysler said that Wrangler sales reached 44,080 units, up 11 percent for the year, making it one of three vehicles with year-over-year improvement.

Dodge s Journey crossover and Challenger sports car, both introduced last year, also gained but at smaller volumes.

One in three vehicles sold in its compact SUV segment is a Jeep Wrangler, and 60 percent of Wrangler sales this year are the four-door Unlimited model first introduced in 2004, Chrysler said earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Wrangler inventory has declined dramatically.

On April 30, a day after the automaker entered bankruptcy and stopped production, Chrysler reported a 63-day supply of Wranglers.

This month, Chrysler executives said they expect to have less than a 30-day supply of Wranglers when production resumes, or about a third of the industry average.

Chrysler said the top state for Wrangler sales is Arizona, followed by Idaho, Utah, and New York.

It s important to the dealers because it s an incremental model that no other manufacturer offers, said Ralph Mahalak, Jr., owner of Monroe Dodge Chrysler Jeep Superstore in Monroe. If I sell somebody a Wrangler, it didn t replace a minivan sale or a car sale.

Mr. Mahalak said dealers also love Wranglers for another reason.

They re able to sell it with virtually no incentives on it. And if they put any incentive on it, they sell like hotcakes, Mr. Mahalak said. Right now, they re in very short supply. They are hard to find. That s why we have to get that plant fired up again and get people back to work.

Jeff Leestma, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, said the Wrangler has a special place in automotive history and hasn t lost its niche in the marketplace.

The Jeep vehicle that ultimately became the Wrangler was clearly the forerunner of what became the modern SUV. It still symbolizes the fun, go-anywhere vehicle that embodies the SUV, Mr. Leestma said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:lvellequette@theblade.comor 419-724-6091.

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