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Jeep goes two directions at N.Y. Auto Show

2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Jeep will drive over some familiar terrain at the New York International Auto Show this week when it introduces its 2007 Wrangler Unlimited.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chrysler Group's Jeep brand will drive over some familiar terrain at the New York Auto Show this week when it introduces a new version of the Jeep Wrangler. It also will branch into new territory with the Jeep Patriot, a car-based sport utility vehicle designed to win new customers to the rugged brand.

The 2007 Wrangler Unlimited is the first four-door version of the Wrangler, the boxy, military-inspired Jeep that went on sale 20 years ago. The Wrangler Unlimited has the proportions of a mid-size SUV with room for five adult passengers.

"Wrangler Unlimited expands the Jeep experience and core values — freedom, adventure, mastery and authenticity — to a broader range of customers who always wanted a Wrangler but also more space and versatility," George Murphy, Chrysler's senior vice president of global marketing, said in a statement. Chrysler is owned by Stuttgart, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler AG.

Chrysler says the Wrangler Unlimited will be the only four-door convertible on the market and will have a new, three-piece hard top that can be configured for open-air driving. It comes with a flat-folding rear seat for more cargo space and standard electronic stability control to prevent rollovers. Chrysler said it stiffened the body for a more refined ride, but the Wrangler Unlimited still is trail-rated for off-roading.

The Wrangler Unlimited is scheduled to arrive in showrooms this fall and will be sold overseas early next year.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 2007 Jeep Patriot, a compact SUV with Jeep's signature round headlights and seven-slot grille but without the standard four-wheel-drive and trail rating. Four-wheel-drive is available, but only as part of an off-road package.

The major difference is in the underpinnings. The Patriot is built on a car platform, rather than Jeep's standard truck platform, and Chrysler says it is designed to have the performance, handling and price of a compact car with the interior flexibility of an SUV.

Although pricing hasn't been announced, the Patriot is expected to be priced below the Jeep Liberty SUV, which is slightly larger than the Patriot but less boxy and starts at $21,190. The Patriot will arrive in U.S. showrooms at the end of this year and in international markets in the first half of 2007.

Chrysler showed a concept version of the Patriot at the Frankfurt Auto Show last fall. At the time, Chrysler Chief Executive Tom LaSorda said the Patriot and another concept, the Jeep Compass crossover, were the result of much soul-searching about how to attract new customers to the 60-year-old brand.

"With this brand, we need some market share," LaSorda said.

Jeep's U.S. sales were up 12 percent last year after the full-size Jeep Commander hit the market. But Chrysler is aiming for bigger things. The division hopes to double its European market share — now at less than 1 percent — by 2009.

Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight, equated the launch of the Patriot to the furor that erupted when Porsche introduced the Cayenne SUV.

"All the purists said, 'This is the worst possible thing you could do to the brand,'" she said. But the Cayenne has sold well, and Porsche's U.S. sales were up 26 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to data from the Power Information Network.

Lindland said the Patriot keeps the look of the Jeep brand but should help the company reach new customers who wouldn't otherwise consider a Jeep.

"From a business standpoint, it's really tough for a brand these days to be known as just one thing," Lindland said.

The only risk with the Patriot is that it will eat into sales of the Jeep Liberty, she said, but she said she expects Chrysler has built that assumption into its business plan.