SUVs presenting the biggest challenges to the aging Cherokee will be foes of the Liberty, too, including the Chevrolet Blazer, Kia Sportage, Honda CR-V, Nissan Xterra, the redesigned Subaru Forester, and, most recently, the new Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. General Motors Corp. is lowering Chevrolet Blazer prices to make way for its new TrailBlazer, which will go on sale in April, and the new Saturn Vue will be on dealership lots next fall.
Blazer, Sportage, CR-V, and Forester sales are up at least slightly this year, while the Xterra has nearly doubled sales from its first year.The Escape and Tribute, which are made from the same platform, are going through their fifth recall since their August premiere, but sales and critical acclaim are strong.
The Liberty is expected to be positioned somewhere between the Cherokee, priced between $19,000 and $24,000, and the Detroit-made Grand Cherokee, which runs from about $28,000 to $35,000. Depending on where the price falls, the Liberty could compete with one of its Jeep cousins, said Ron Szegedi, a Jeep salesman at Ed Schmidt Auto Group in Perrysburg.
Much of the Libertyís success will depend on its features compared with the competition, said David Healy, an auto analyst for Burnham Securities, Inc.
As the auto industry appears headed into a temporary slump, DaimlerChrysler may have trouble profiting from the Liberty, another expert said. The automaker wisely decided to keep the Cherokee, which will give buyers a lower-priced alternative until the Liberty takes off, said Jim Mateyka, vice president in the global automotive consulting business of A.T. Kearney, Inc., of Southfield, Mich.
"Thereís a lot of pretty severe price competition," he said. "The timing is not great, but youíve got to stay in the car business."
Consumers donít like spikes in gas prices like those experience in the spring nor do they like the gas shortages from the 1970s, but Mr. Cole of the Center for Automotive Research said the worst seems to be over on the gas front.
Mr. Szegedi, the Jeep salesman at Ed Schmidt, said: "I donít think that gas prices will ever be bad enough that they will stop buying sport utilities. We all like nice things, and sport utilities are turning out to be the elite of vehicles that you can own.
"I think [the Liberty] is going to sell like wildfire."