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Old 09-21-2010, 07:57 AM   #1
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September 21, 2010 Jeep brand pressing the accelerator | detnews.com | The Detroit News
Jeep brand pressing the accelerator

Upgraded vehicles, possible new pickup help drive momentum

ALISA PRIDDLE
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills -- The Jeep brand is enjoying a worldwide sales uptick, and momentum should continue as it supplies five of 16 upgraded Chrysler Group LLC vehicles this year -- not counting a possible Wrangler-based pickup.

Mike Manley, who heads the Jeep brand, said Monday that dealers shown a pickup concept at a recent meeting in Orlando were excited about it.

Also boding well for a Jeep pickup, likely based on the Gladiator concept shown in 2005, is the enthusiasm for it at Auburn Hills.

"There is as much passion about building a Jeep pickup as for the (return of the Dodge) Viper," Manley said at an event to show off upgrades to the 2011 Jeep Wrangler and Patriot.

Manley said the pickup isn't in the automaker's five-year product plan, but can be added.

"It would be relatively quick to execute because it is off an existing platform," he said. It would share underpinnings with the Wrangler Unlimited.

The pickup could be added in 24 months, he said. Manley said it has not been approved yet.

"It is good to see there is more in the works," said Bill Golling of Golling Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Bloomfield Hills, who already is excited about having 16 all-new or significantly modified 2011 vehicles to offer potential buyers.

The Patriot and Compass sister vehicles are being restyled to stay fresh until they are replaced by a single Jeep from the Fiat SpA compact car family at the end of 2012. The vehicle's design is well under way, Manley said.

For 2011, the Patriot's square edges are rounded off, the height was raised an inch and tow hooks on the front will contribute greater kinship with the Wrangler.

The updated Patriot starts production in a couple weeks.

The new Compass does not follow until December because its modifications are greater, to bring its look more in line with the new Grand Cherokee.

The two compact Jeeps compete in a 3.5 million unit segment worldwide, Manley said, including 400,000 in the U.S.

The upgrades "should be enough to sustain sales until the next major changes," said Dave Sullivan, product analyst with AutoPacific in Troy.

But without engine and transmission improvements, luring new buyers from the competition may be difficult, he said.

The Wrangler is the other Jeep getting a significant makeover. The Sahara model is differentiated as a high-end model with a body-colored hardtop. But all trim levels have nicer interiors including a soft, full-size arm rest in the door. Heated electronic adjustable side mirrors have been added.

The new roof "is a knockout" and with improvements to the steering wheel, which now incorporates cruise control and the redesigned center stack, "it looks like a 2011 model and not 10 years old," Sullivan said.

There is still hard plastic that can be hosed out.

"There is nothing wrong with plastic if you know how to use it," said Klaus Busse, Chrysler's head of interior design.

The 2011 lineup kicked off this summer with the all-new Grand Cherokee, which doubled its share of the U.S. full-size SUV market to 8 percent, compared with the outgoing model, said Manley.

The segment is important because it has grown 24 percent from a year ago and represents 1.6 million vehicles worldwide, including 800,000 in the United States.

Chrysler has started shipping Grand Cherokees with gasoline engines to international markets from the Jefferson North plant in Detroit. Diesels will follow in the first quarter of 2011.

More growth is planned next year, when Jeep celebrates its 70th anniversary, Manley said.

"I've never seen a company move this fast and I'm blown away by it," said dealer Golling.

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