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Chrysler unveils new product lineup

DETROIT November 17, 2003; John Porretto writing for the AP reported that DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group will spend an extra $250 million to promote nine new or redesigned vehicles next year, a product offensive the automaker hopes will reverse slumping sales and declining U.S. market share, Chrysler chief Dieter Zetsche said Monday.

Chrysler used Cobo Arena, site of the annual North American International Auto Show, for the debut of several new products to hit showrooms next year, including a Chrysler Crossfire roadster, a larger Jeep Wrangler and a redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The smallest of Detroit's Big Three automakers also showed off three concept vehicles, two from Jeep and one from Dodge, that could become production models in coming years.

Analysts and even some dealers have said Chrysler has paid the price in recent years for an aging lineup, while Asian and European companies have pursued business with a variety of new products.

Zetsche acknowledged Monday to a group of automotive journalists that the company has acted defensively in the midst of increasing competition, cutting material costs by 15 percent and improving quality by 30 percent in the past few years.

"Now it's time to go on the offensive," he said. "Now we start to harvest."

To help spread the word, Zetsche said Chrysler has increased its marketing budget by $250 million, but he wouldn't disclose the amount of the original budget.

Chrysler's U.S. market share has fallen from 16.1 percent shortly before its merger with Daimler-Benz in 1998 to roughly 13 percent.

Already this year, with U.S. sales down nearly 5 percent, Chrysler has started production of a redesigned and larger Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle, which the company hopes will reclaim business in the profitable light truck segment.

Among the new vehicles scheduled for launch next year: the Chrysler 300C sedan, which Zetsche called the brand's flagship; a convertible version of the PT Cruiser; the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which is 15 inches (38 centimeters) longer than the current model; the Jeep Liberty Renegade, whose diesel engine will increase fuel efficiency by 25 to 30 percent; and a redesigned Dodge Dakota pickup.

Longer-range plans call for 25 new or redesigned vehicles over the next 36 months.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services lowered its long-term ratings on DaimlerChrysler debt Oct. 21, citing "difficult competitive conditions plus costs associated with the large number of new products" at the Chrysler Group.

Dealers say they're just ready to see some new vehicles and increase traffic in showrooms. Zetsche and other Chrysler executives have spent the past week providing product previews to roughly 5,000 dealers, managers and sales people across the country.