Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Struggling Chrysler buoyed by Belvidere trio

Struggling Chrysler buoyed by Belvidere trio

By Alex Gary
The rise of gas prices across the United States continued to push buyers toward Chrysler’s fuel-efficient models made in Belvidere, with sales of the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot a bright spot in what was otherwise a tough month for the nation’s No. 4 automaker.

Chrysler dealers in the U.S. sold 148,747 vehicles in May, a 25 percent decline from May 2007, as buyers again shifted swiftly away from the trucks and SUVs that make up much of Chrysler’s lineup.

That shift has been a boon for sales of the Caliber, Compass and Patriot, all of which can reach 28 mpg. Together, U.S. ealers sold 24,169 of the Belvidere trio, the most for a single month in the Caliber era by more than 2,200.

More than 2,700 work at the Belvidere plant where the three cars are put together, making it the largest manufacturing employer in the Rock River Valley.

“There is a new era emerging in the restructuring of the American economy. There is an unprecedented shift in the industry that is challenging, but we are determined to provide consumers what they need and want,” Chrysler Vice President and Chairman Jim Press said in a news release.

There was no better contrast than the news out of General Motors, which announced it will shut down four plants where it makes trucks and SUVs, including its historic plant in Janesville, Wis., where nearly 2,700 people make the Chevy Suburban and Tahoe and GMC Yukon and Denali SUVs, in 2010. Janesville is GM’s longest-running plant, starting as a tractor assembly plant in 1919 and making such vehicles over the years as the Chevy Impala, Caprice and Cavalier.

The Janesville products, which also are assembled at a plant in Texas, were the stars of GM’s lineup in the not-too-distant past. In 2005, in June and July alone, U.S. dealers sold 114,000 of those four vehicles. This May, GM dealers sold just 16,461 Yukons, Tahoes and Suburbans and just 90,693 combined in 2008’s first five months.

The shift away from larger, low-mileage vehicles has been industrywide. Toyota’s Corolla and Camry and Honda’s Civic and Accord all outsold Ford’s F-Series truck, the first time the F-series wasn’t the top U.S. seller in a month since 1992. And Ford sold more than 30,000 Ford Focus small cars for only the second time in that car’s nine-year history.

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