Chrysler is studying whether to make a "stretch" version of the Jeep Wrangler in 2004 in Toledo and whether to increase production of the local plantís hot-selling Jeep Liberty, moves that might create hundreds of jobs and return to work those who have been laid off.
Nick Vuich, United Auto Workers Local 12 leader at the Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant, told The Blade yesterday that he has been in discussions with DaimlerChrysler AG about the possible production improvements.
The prospects come as Jeep workers tomorrow are to be briefed by union leaders about a new one-year contract with Chrysler. The pact includes pay and pension increases and other gains, but did not bring the plant a third vehicle and added jobs as the union had hoped. Still, company officials did talk about making different versions of the plantís existing sports utility vehicles, which could create jobs, Mr. Vuich said.
Voting on the tentative agreement is scheduled for Tuesday.
Chrysler officials declined yesterday to comment about prospective products beyond the 2003 model year or possible production increases at Toledo Jeep.Toledo Jeep engineers recently studied a prototype Wrangler with a wheelbase longer than the current 93.4 inches, reminiscent of the Jeep Scrambler made from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Mr. Vuich said. They took measurements to determine whether it could be made with equipment at the plant, he said. Wranglers are built and painted at the Jeep Parkway factory and then finished at the Stickney Avenue factory.
Chrysler wants different versions of the two Toledo-made Jeeps, and a Wrangler with a longer wheelbase has monopolized discussions for that SUV since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Vuich said. It could be sold to both the military and consumers, he said. The design has not been finalized, however.
"Theyíre just looking at different versions of that," Mr. Vuich said.
For the plant, he said, the extra-long Wrangler likely would recall some laid-off workers and might restore a second shift at Toledo Jeep, which lost the afternoon shift last year when production was scaled down for the Wrangler. The number of workers needed would depend on how many of the "stretch" vehicles the company wants to make, and that detail has not been finalized, he added.
The three-factory plant has about 3,800 workers on a given day. About 550 longtime workers are laid off but can rotate into job shifts every few weeks while more senior employees are voluntarily idled. Plus, another 600 workers are on layoff who were hired temporarily to help out while others were trained at the new Jeep factory on Chrysler Drive that makes the Liberty.
For Jeep customers, the possible new Jeep might have appeal.
Off-road enthusiast Joe Cashen of Eunice, La., who spent $40,000 for a custom-built Wrangler with a 112-inch wheelbase, said he approves of a factory-made stretch version. Mr. Cashen and his wife, Jackie, own a 1997 Wrangler and plan to tow their new extended rig - which has a freezer in back as well as rock guards, 33-inch tires, and other off-roading gear - with more camping supplies behind their motor home when theyíre not on a trail.
"My wife and I just canít believe what it looks like," the businessman told The Blade yesterday while waiting for the custom job to be finished at American Expedition Vehicles in Missoula, Mont. "My biggest worry is keeping the thing from my three sons."
American Expedition owner David Harriton said he canít keep up with demand for stretch Wranglers and customizes about 70 a year for up to $80,000 each, including the price of the Jeep. Chrysler, though, will have to determine whether a stretch Wrangler will add sales or take them from current Toledo-made models, he said.
"Itís definitely something an enthusiast really wants," Mr. Harriton said. "They would definitely sell them. Itís a great car. Itís fantastic."