TOLEDO, Ohio -- Executives from Chrysler Group and President Barack Obama will take a joint victory lap Friday at the automaker’s massive Toledo assembly complex to celebrate Chrysler’s survival and its full repayment of $7.6 billion in government loans.
But paying off taxpayers six years early might seem easy compared with the product challenges Chrysler faces as it designs the third generation of its Jeep Liberty -- one of the first North American vehicles that will ride on the Fiat-derived CUSW architecture.
How important is Liberty 3.0 to Chrysler’s long-term fate? Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne knows all too well.
“That vehicle has to be perfect,” he told reporters in January at the Detroit auto show. And he’s right.
It’s not just that Chrysler needs to be a leader again in mid-sized SUVs -- a segment it dominated for a decade with the much-loved and iconic Jeep Cherokee. It’s also that Liberty 3.0 must be a smash hit with so many different constituencies that Jeep designers run a high risk of failure by committee by trying to serve them all.
Jeep enthusiasts are already looking to Liberty 3.0 with a skeptical eye -- though none has seen it yet -- because they worry a Fiat-derived Jeep might be a repeat of the Daimler-era Jeep Compass: seven slots in the grill, round headlights and no off-road chops.
Given the choice, most trail-riders would still choose a 10-year-old Cherokee, with its solid front axle, light weight and great low-end torque, over the current version of the Liberty.
Jeep enthusiasts yearn for a four-door Jeep that is as capable off-road as the Wrangler but more comfortable on-road than your average pickup and more practical as a daily driver.
Oh -- and they want a U.S. diesel engine option too.
If they get all those things, they’ll continue to throw money at those Jeep-brand strollers and luggage sets and happily burn even more “Jeep” tattoos onto their bodies. But, hey, no pressure.
Meanwhile, Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and Jeep brand boss Michael Manley know that Liberty 3.0 has to be a worldwide volume vehicle, one that will drive the Jeep brand back into Europe, Asia and South America while keeping its bread buttered in the United States and Canada.
Manley, who also holds responsibility for the Chrysler Group’s international sales efforts, understands well that the Jeep brand is his best calling card overseas, where “Jeep” elicits images of brave soldiers saving a world from fascism, and “Dodge” is something you do to avoid being killed in heavy traffic.
That means Liberty 3.0 -- or Cherokee 8.0 in overseas terms -- has to have road manners at least the equal of other vehicles in the segment such as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota Rav4. And it needs a fuel-efficiency rating that won’t decimate sales every time the price of gasoline spikes, along with a size, interior and price that appeal to buyers from Montana to Montenegro to Moscow.
And if that weren’t enough pressure on Jeep designers in Auburn Hills, Mich., the fact that Liberty 3.0 will be among the first of at least eight new, high-volume Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles that will ride on Fiat’s CUSW architecture raises the design stakes even more. For if Liberty 3.0 flops, for whatever reason, at least some of that stink might stick to those as-yet-to-be-revealed high-volume vehicles, like the next-generation D-segment sedans due out in 2013.
And that will be a long-term profit killer.
So when the president and Marchionne visit Toledo this week for their financial victory lap, pay attention to those vehicles parked in the background and know that a team of engineers in Auburn Hills is working hard, attempting to thread a needle with a two-ton SUV.
Larry Vellequette is a freelance journalist in Toledo, Ohio.