2014 Jeep Cherokee to invigorate Chrysler's Toledo assembly plant

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NEW YORK -- The public debut of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee at the New York auto show can be traced back to Chrysler Group LLC's $500 million investment to make the Toledo Assembly Complex one of the most flexible and advanced auto assembly plants in the United States.

The Cherokee promises to inject new life into the plant, bringing a second shift of workers and more job security. The plant produced 243,000 vehicles in 2011 and 275,000 vehicles last year, the majority of them Wranglers. By 2015, union officials say there's potential for Toledo to build half a million vehicles a year.

"We'll be pushing 500,000 cars a year in Toledo, and that'll make us the largest assembly plant in North America," said Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12.

Company officials said last week at the New York International Auto Show that the plant has the potential for additional capacity, but it's far too early to talk about future plans in Toledo, especially considering the Cherokee is still months away from dealer showrooms. Officials are happy, however, to talk about the second shift, which is scheduled to begin in the year's third quarter.

Chrysler has already gathered applications for those jobs, and Toledo plant manager Zach Leroux said the hiring is on track.

"We're now going through the selection process for our new hires, bringing them through the assessment process, getting those guys ready to come on board as well," he said. "We're completely on schedule."

Between the new shift and extra workers to keep the Wrangler line running through breaks, the plant will be adding about 1,300 new jobs this year.

Workers built the last Jeep Liberty in August. Within weeks, contractors had picked the inside of the plant clean.

"They gutted our body shop in about two and a half to three weeks," autoworker John Casto said. "It was inspiring and almost frightening the way they could clear stuff out."

Mr. Casto was one of a small group of autoworkers from the Toledo Assembly Complex who went to the New York auto show to see the debut of the vehicle they'll be building. Mr. Casto will help to take workstations from the concept stage and put them on the floor.

As part of its investment, Chrysler upgraded the paint shop, including adding a new process to inject sound-deadening material into body cavities. The plant now has more advanced lasers for measuring and welding, 963 new robots, and a 252,000-square-foot expansion of the body shop.

"It's a lot more advanced," Mr. Casto said. "It's going to be much better ergonomically."

Mr. Leroux said most of the laid off workers from the Liberty line are now back on the job.

Company officials have said production of the Cherokee will start in May and ramp up through the beginning of the third quarter. Right now the plant is building pre-production models for engineering tests. Mr. Leroux said about 350 vehicles have been finished so far.

After years of the industry announcing downgrades, layoffs, and production decreases, Mr. Leroux said it's exciting to be able to introduce an all-new product, new jobs, and increasing sales.

"It's all good news, and now with that comes a great sense of responsibility we have as a plant to deliver that," he said. "It's certainly widespread and understood through the plant."

A third shift for Cherokee isn't impossible, said Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst with Kelley Blue Book, but it remains to be seen how well the Cherokee will sell against its well-entrenched competitors until reviewers have a chance to see how the Cherokee performs on the road.

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The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade.


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