The Chrysler group began its quest to regain leadership of the sport-utility market it pioneered with the introduction of the Jeep Liberty at the show Sunday.
Chrysler had planned to continue building the Cherokee through June 2002, but sluggish sales prompted the automaker's decision last week to kill Cherokee production this summer.
In an interview Sunday, Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard acknowledged that Cherokee production is being cut so that sales of the older vehicle won't eat into Liberty sales.
Production capacity will be 200,000 units annually. Chrysler is not saying how many it expects to sell. But intensifying competition in the high-margin sport-utility market has eroded Chrysler's sport-utility position. The Liberty is part of Chrysler's strategy to reverse its slide.
Tom Sidlik, general manager of Jeep operations, says Liberty was designed to satisfy core Jeep enthusiasts and attract a new breed of buyers who "do things their own way."
The Liberty features a new, Chrysler-designed coil-spring independent front suspension to improve ride and handling. It also has a new rack-and-pinion steering system for better on-road control. Off-road purists fear the new suspension will compromise Liberty's off-road performance. But Chrysler says the Liberty can conquer the toughest off-road terrain.
"What makes this new Liberty so special is that it was designed from the ground up to provide Jeep's hallmark off-road, off-highway capability as well as superior on-road ride and handling," said Sidlik. "In other words, no compromises."
Liberty comes in two models, a Sport version and a more upscale Limited Edition. It is powered by a 3.7-liter V-6 engine that is similar in design to the 4.7-liter V-8 in Jeep's flagship, the Grand Cherokee. The V-6 engine produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 225 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Liberty also is available with Chrysler's 2.4-liter PowerTech I-4 engine. A 5-speed manual transmission is available with either engine.
Chrysler invested $1.7 billion to develop the Liberty. It will be built in a new plant in Toledo, Ohio, near the Cherokee plant. Production is scheduled to start in April. The first vehicles should be in dealer showrooms in May. Pricing has not been determined.