Why recall letters could be a real boon for Jeep dealers

Chrysler Group late next week is expected to mail out the 1.56 million notification letters to owners of recalled Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys offering a free trailer hitch to improve the safety of the aging vehicles.

Think what you will about Chrysler's $151 million settlement in June with federal safety regulators, but one thing's clear: it can be a golden opportunity for Chrysler dealers.

The recall, which covers 1993-1998 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Libertys, should lure thousands of those consumers back to a Chrysler dealership for the first time in many years, given the age of their vehicles. Such is the draw of the word 'free' -- even if it is associated with a trailer hitch that most consumers are unlikely to use.

If they can be persuaded into the showroom, some of those Jeep owners will notice how much things have changed from what they're driving.

The freshest of the SUVs coming in for trailer hitches was built during an era when cheap plastics and 'de-contenting' were the norm in Auburn Hills. That's not the case anymore. In fact, the current Grand Cherokee's interior rivals those of much more expensive European luxury sedans.

And at the other end of the recalled spectrum, if a customer is still driving a 1993 Grand Cherokee in 2013, how hard is it for a salesperson to make a case about durability?

Of course, it would have been nice if the Jeep Cherokee had arrived in time to offer a mid-sized alternative to owners of the recalled Libertys, but the Compass and Patriot -- now with a proper six-speed transmission -- are adequate stand-ins.

Some Chrysler dealers and supporters expressed indignation in late June at what they considered the automaker's capitulation to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But that deal is done, it's on the books, and it's been paid for by Chrysler.

Now its time for Chrysler's dealers to make some lemonade from this citrusy situation.

They have the tools to do so, as long as they recognize the opportunity.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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