Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chrysler LLC execs hint at changes for Jeep plant

Lasorda, Press praise Wrangler, Liberty models

DETROIT - Two of Chrysler LLC's top executives yesterday sung the praises of the Jeep brand and its local workforce while warning that changes would be coming to the brand and to its Toledo factory that makes the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro.
Tom Lasorda and James Press, both vice chairman and president, said in separate interviews that the privately-held auto firm views the Jeep brand as one of its greatest assets, and said the brand must be protected.
In a veiled reference to vehicles such as the Nitro, which is made on the same lines as the Liberty, Mr. Press said Chrysler officials will begin paring down the company's many model offerings and concentrating on the market segment where each brand is strongest.
Both the Nitro and Liberty are assembled at Toledo Jeep Assembly complex, which also makes the Wrangler in factories next door.
"We're going to take our model selection and morph it into a brand reinforcement, where we don't build the same product on top of another vehicle to cover the same market in a different brand to just compete with ourselves," Mr. Press said. He said he did not want to name specific models after being on the job just three months, but announcements would be forthcoming.
"We've got a lot more work to do, and it will evolve over time," he said.
Both men spoke to reporters during the media preview for the North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public Saturday in the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. The show has more than 700 vehicles.
Mr. Lasorda said last year's introduction of the four-door version of the Wrangler, the Wrangler Unlimited, blew away sales expectations.
"Nobody expected it to be that explosive," he said, adding praise for the local workforce and the unique "supplier park" model that the plant utilizes for the Wrangler. Outside supplier employees make the body and paint the vehicles, and Chrysler workers put it together.
"The model's working really well, but it's not hard to work well when you've sold 157,000 units down there," Mr. Lasorda said.
He expects sales of the Liberty to expand in 2008 because of a wider roll-out of the Sky Slider sunroof, which workers said had some leakage problems initially. The factory has "thousands of orders for it," Mr. Lasorda said.
Liberty sales fell more than 30 percent in 2007, even though the vehicle was redesigned to be boxier and brawnier starting last summer. The previous version appealed more to women, but the new version harkens back to the original Jeep rugged design.
Chrysler officials told analysts this month that Liberty sales fell because of fewer cars being sold for low-profit fleet use, such as to rental car companies. Still, the company had decided to eliminate the third shift at the plant, scheduled for next month, which will chop 780 jobs.
"We're going to take a shift off in Toledo, and I think that will be putting demand back in alignment with supply," Mr. Lasorda said.
Mr. Press, who was hired away from Toyota Motor Co. in the fall in what was considered a major coup, called Jeep "a great iconic brand. It's really become a generic brand for [SUVs]. When I used to work [at Toyota], I got so sick of people coming up and saying 'You know, that Toyota Jeep, what do you call that?'"
"It's not a Jeep!" Mr. Press screamed.
The Jeep brand "is identified with people who have an expressive, outdoor, have-fun kind of lifestyle," he said. Jeep customers are very loyal to their vehicles, a trait the company must protect, even at the expense of recent model expansions, he added.
The Jeep brand was expanded to seven vehicles over the last several years to include several smaller versions built in Belvedere, Ill., and larger vehicles built in Detroit. The company, then, was owned by DaimlerChrysler AG, a German firm.
"Whenever you hear Jeep or see Jeep, you ought to know it's real, and you ought to know what it's going to be," Mr. Press said. "That's my priority for the Jeep brand.
"The Jeep is like your brother-in-law: kind of bad, but everybody loves him. They all wish they were like him, but nobody could be."

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