Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jeep Liberty or Dodge Nitro to be phased out, officials say

Nameplates will be merged by 2012 model year

A Dodge Nitro moves down the line at Chrysler's Toledo North Assembly plant. With sales down 44 percent from last year, experts expect the Nitro nameplate to be dropped.

Chrysler LLC officials yesterday confirmed that they will phase out either the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty or the Dodge Nitro sport utility vehicle by the 2012 model year.

Steven Landry, vice president of North American sales, told industry analysts that the slow-selling Nitro and its near-twin, the Jeep Liberty, would be merged behind one nameplate within three years.

"If you put sales of Liberty and Nitro together, it's doing what we want it to do," Mr. Landry said while discussing the poor August sales of the two vehicles.

"As we move toward 2012, we won't have this dual branding," Mr. Landry said, citing a previously announced effort to scale back the automaker's offerings. "That's when we'll just come back with one branded body of those particular vehicles, instead of two."

Experts generally expect the Nitro would be the vehicle to be dumped and, in the past, said they anticipated it would happen before 2012.

Liberty's 4,654 sales were down 14 percent from August, 2007, but up 24 percent from July. Nitro's 1,991 sales fell 71 percent in August from the same period a year ago, but were 21 percent higher than in July. For the year, Chrysler has sold 49,330 Libertys, down 20 percent from a year ago, and 27,540 Nitros, down 44 percent from last year.

Chrysler officials this year rolled out Project Genesis, an effort to eliminate duplicate vehicles within their product lineup to focus each of the company's three brands: Jeep, Chrysler, and Dodge. The project would trim its dealer network to get them to sell all three brands.

Denny Amrhein, co-owner of GroganTowne Chrysler-Dodge, said the Nitro is far more likely to be eliminated than the Liberty, but the effect will be muted if Chrysler is successful in its efforts to combine dealerships.

"I think 2012 is a pretty good time frame for what they plan to do with those two cars," he said. "It's going to be fine as long as you have the dealers with all three lines, but it will be hard if you don't, because you can't sell the vehicles if you don't have the product."

Officials with United Auto Workers Local 12 could not be reached for comment yesterday. About 2,200 UAW members work at the Toledo Jeep Assembly plant producing the Liberty and Nitro. It is unclear what ending one of the vehicles would do to the plant or to employment, as UAW leaders have pushed for making another vehicle at that location.

Introduced in late 2006 as the brainchild of Chrysler's former German owners, the Dodge-badged Jeep knockoff received a disappointing welcome from consumers, selling just 74,285 units in 2007. It is built on the same line as its sister SUV, the Liberty. Chrysler had accumulated a 224-day supply of the vehicles through July 1, versus the 60 to 80-day supply typically desired by automakers.

Yesterday, Mr. Landry said that the inventory of unsold Nitros had fallen to 12,408 units, a number that would translate to about a 194-day supply.

After the conference call, Chrysler spokesman Stuart Schorr verified what Mr. Landry had said, but sought to clarify the comments.

"That means we could take out products that overlap, add products where we don't compete today, and make sure new products and new generation of current products have distinct customer targets," he told The Blade. "We have not made any announcements specific to eliminating vehicles or nameplates."

Also yesterday, Chrysler reported that sales of the Toledo-built Jeep Wrangler declined 32 percent during August to 6,469 units, and were down 30 percent for the year to 59,005.

Like other automakers struggling with car sales this summer, Chrysler sweetened incentives at dealerships to lure potential customers to purchase vehicles or to lease them through third-party lenders.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

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