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By JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER


DETROIT - Poor fuel economy is troublesome for the once-hot Jeep Liberty and even its popular Toledo siblings, and DaimlerChrysler AG is looking at alternatives for the compact sport-utility vehicles, Chrysler's leader says.

Unlike the diesel engine that outfitted Libertys until last year, however, any fuel-sipping method will have to meet standards in all 50 states, said Tom LaSorda, Chrysler's president and chief executive.

Chrysler is considering Mercedes-Benz's Bluetec diesels for various vehicles and is weighing what to do with the Toledo-built Liberty, Dodge Nitro, and Jeep Wrangler, Mr. LaSorda said. "Whether it's a diesel or some other technology, we don't know yet, " he told a group of reporters during media previews for the North American International Auto Show in downtown Detroit.

The four-door Wrangler Unlimited is the hottest vehicle on the market, and sales in the compact SUV segment will continue to grow, Mr. LaSorda said. He praised employees at Toledo Jeep Assembly's Wrangler plant, which is partially run by suppliers, for striving to keep up with demand.

"We can't make enough, " Mr. LaSorda said.

Mr. LaSorda conceded, however, that Chrysler must cut production of some of its vehicles.

He declined to say yesterday whether that will mean shuttering one or more assembly plants as analysts predict.

No one is speculating about closing either of Toledo Jeep's plants, the older of which began building the Liberty in 2001.

The busy Wrangler plant next door began production last summer.

Although sales of the Liberty have fallen and its inventory swelled last year, a two-week idling is helping clear supply, and the SUV is to be redesigned this year. Sales of the all-new Nitro, which is built on the same line as the Liberty, are gaining momentum.

Chrysler is working on a reorganization plan that will be announced at the end of February, Mr. LaSorda said.

Officials will meet with the United Auto Workers to discuss the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, Chrysler gave UAW President Ron Gettelfinger the latest financial information he requested in hopes of reaching an accord on health-care costs before contract talks later this year, Mr. LaSorda said.

"It's something we have to address short term instead of waiting, " he said.

The UAW has renegotiated health-care expenses with General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. but declined to give Chrysler similar breaks, saying its financial situation was not as dire.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:
[email protected]
or 419-724-6087.

LINK:http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070108/BUSINESS02/701080383
 
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