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Automotive

Concepts at Detroit auto show likely to indicate Jeep's direction

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One made its debut last year at the Tokyo Motor Show, where the current Toledo-made Jeep Wrangler premiered in 1995. The other remains shrouded in secrecy.

But the two Jeep concepts taking center stage this week during media previews for Detroit's North American International Auto Show undoubtedly will give some hints about future models for the Toledo-born brand.

“We hardly ever do concepts just for concepts' sake,” said Sjoerd Dijkstra, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. side.

The Chrysler unit has a long history of turning concepts into reality. Versions of the Dodge Viper, Chrysler Prowler, and Chrysler PT Cruiser were first shown as concepts.

The Chrysler Crossfire coupe that made its debut as a concept at the Detroit show just last year will go on sale in 2003.

Plus, the new Toledo-made Jeep Liberty combined theme elements of two concepts, the four-door “stretch” Wrangler called the Dakar and the sporty Jeepster. Some concepts, one expert said, are near production, and others are “far out.” And some are somewhere in the middle to gauge reactions.

The financially troubled Chrysler unit is not likely to be showing any design studies that are too risky, because the industry's stiff competitive environment leaves little experimental room or money to spare, said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“They want to get out on the leading edge of design, but not too far,” he said. “I don't think they're going to be doing too much that's going to be a big chance. They really can't afford too many mistakes right now.”

Whether the mystery Jeep and the Jeep Willys2 concept, a takeoff from the Willys shown in Detroit last year, will offer design cues for the brand or stay mostly intact remains to be seen.

The newest concept and the Jeep Willys2, which made its debut in Tokyo, will be on display at downtown Detroit's Cobo Center show from Saturday through Jan. 21.

“Ultimately, combining [concepts] gave us the Liberty, so expect something to come from the Willys or the Willys2,” said Mr. Dijkstra, who declined to give any details on the other Jeep concept.

Change is expected for the sport-utility vehicle brand, which replaced the long-lived Jeep Cherokee with the Liberty for its 2002 lineup. The Liberty has done well nationwide, with nearly 88,500 sold since it began arriving on dealership lots in May.

The compact SUV beat out direct competitors to be one of three finalists for the auto journalist-decided North American Truck of the Year award to be bestowed today.

Dieter Zetsche, head of the Chrysler unit, has told The Blade the brand must be leveraged beyond the three highly popular off-road models offered today: the Liberty, the Wrangler, and the Detroit-made Grand Cherokee. Unlike those, he said, not all future Jeeps will have to conquer California's Rubicon Trail, the nation's most demanding off-road trek.

Analysts predict the Grand Cherokee will be redesigned for the 2005 model year and the Wrangler will be updated.

Some speculate that an entry-level Jeep with a sticker price lower than the Wrangler's $15,230-plus and, at the other end of the spectrum, a large model with three rows of seats, dubbed the Grand Wagoneer, also are on the way.

A likely, low-cost move would be to start making a couple of variations that use the Liberty platform, such as a two-door model or one with a pickup bed, said Mr. Cole of the Center for Automotive Research. Production at Toledo Jeep Assembly's new factory for the Liberty is flexible, and the automaker needs to keep plants full to make money, he said.

The Jeep Willys and Willys2 concepts, which can hit 62 miles an hour in little more than 10 seconds, marry the brand's spirit with the latest fuel-efficient technology.

They both have one-piece, carbon-fiber bodies webbed to an aluminum frame and 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines supercharged to deliver 160 horsepower.

The Willys and Willys2 have full-time four-wheel drive with low and high ranges, as well as the brand's distinctive seven-slot grille. They are about 10 inches shorter than the Wrangler at about 142 inches, but their 95-inch wheelbases are slightly longer. At about 3,000 pounds, the Willys and Willys2 are at least 100 pounds lighter than the Wrangler.

Unlike the open-top Willys, which won the Gold Award in the 2001 Industrial Design Excellence Competition, sponsored by Business Week magazine and the Industrial Design Society of America, the Willys2 has a carbon-fiber removable hardtop. The top has a roof rack with a full-size spare tire holder, a luggage carrier, and bindings for outdoor gear.

As competitors crowd the SUV market invented by Jeep and expand into car-based models, the concepts' name and design cues wisely draw on the brand's World War II and off-roading identity, said Jim Mateyka, vice president in the global automotive consulting business of A.T. Kearney, Inc., of Southfield, Mich.

“I think they want to maintain sort of the trek back in history to the Willys Jeep,” he said. “Jeep wants to create and continue to have a niche in the market that's unique.”

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