By Larry P. Vellequette, Crain News Service
PARIS (Oct. 6, 2014) — Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, dropped a bomb at the Paris auto show last week, and it landed 4,000 miles west on Toledo, Ohio.
Mr. Marchionne said his company is strongly considering massive changes to the next-generation Jeep Wrangler — unibody construction, an aluminum body and smaller, turbocharged engines.
And these changes would mean that the SUV likely will be assembled outside its home in Toledo, he said. He stressed that no jobs would be lost, without indicating what might replace the 223,000 Wranglers produced annually at the plant.
Although Mr. Marchionne said the Wrangler changes are under consideration, a company source with direct knowledge said the decision to build an aluminum-body Wrangler already has been made.
Mr. Marchionne said the Wrangler's current body-on-frame plant could only assemble a unibody vehicle with an expensive overhaul. And refitting the plant would be too expensive.
“If the solution is aluminum, then I think, unfortunately, that Toledo is the wrong place, the wrong setup to try and build a Wrangler because it requires a complete reconfiguring of the assets that would be cost-prohibitive,” he said. “It would be so outrageously expensive that it would be impossible to try and work out of that facility.”
Instead, he suggested that the next-generation Wrangler might be built in Belvidere, Ill., or Sterling Heights, Mich., both unibody plants with available manufacturing capacity.
Mr. Marchionne's views contradicted a statement he made in January. At the Detroit auto show, he vowed “never to produce a Wrangler outside of Toledo. So whatever Wranglers are going to be made are going to be made there as long as I'm the CEO. They'll not be built anywhere else.”
Keep the Jeep
In Toledo, many were dismayed by the news that they'd lose the Wrangler. “Toledo leaders prepare for push to retain Jeep icon,” said a headline last week on the website of the Toledo Blade newspaper.
Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents hourly workers at Chrysler's massive Toledo Assembly Complex, wants the Wrangler to stay in Toledo.
“Our members have done everything they've been asked to do and more to meet demand for Wrangler,” he said. “Our community has done everything it could to meet demand for Wrangler, and this is just totally unacceptable.
“They can talk about anything they want to do with how the Wrangler is made — whether it's aluminum or a different powertrain or whatever — but it has to be made in Toledo, in its birthplace.”
The next Wrangler, due in 2017, should lose weight and be powered by smaller engines than its current 3.6-liter V-6 to help Fiat Chrysler meet stricter U.S. fuel economy rules.
Mr. Marchionne said the debates that raged inside Ford Motor Co. about adopting an aluminum body on the redesigned 2015 F-150 pickup “are going on inside our house now.”
He did not say how jobs would be retained if the Wrangler leaves. But this could be done by assembling another vehicle on the Wrangler line, such as the body-on-frame Ram pickup or perhaps a Jeep pickup.
Another possibility is to keep building the current Wrangler in Toledo for some period while the redesigned version is assembled elsewhere.
The Wrangler, the No. 2 seller in the Jeep lineup, is not just another vehicle to Toledo residents. It is a direct descendent of the original Willys MB, the ubiquitous military vehicle that helped the Allied armies win World War II.
It was first marketed as the CJ — for civilian Jeep — in the 1940s. The CJ name was used for decades until the switch to Wrangler in 1986.
But Wrangler production has moved out of Toledo in the past. It was assembled in Brampton, Ontario, for six years beginning in 1987, the same year that Chrysler bought American Motors and took control of Jeep.
Chrysler moved the Wrangler back to Toledo in 1993 and opened a new Wrangler plant in 2006 for the launch of the popular four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.