September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chrysler gaining ground on rivals

The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, above, at Chrysler Group world headquarters in Auburn Hills was redesigned with an edgy look that has attracted attention and buyers. (Carlos Osorio / AP)

Stan Glaser’s driveway used to be filled with Toyotas. Yet when it came time to trade in his old Toyota truck, he shifted loyalties to Chrysler Group LLC’s Jeep brand, buying a $41,000 white Cherokee sport utility vehicle.

“We’ve been Toyota people for a long time and we switched,” said Glaser, 61, a retired graphic artist from Yorba Linda, Calif., who shopped Toyota SUVs. “It was a combination of the technology, the look and the size of the Cherokee. I’m a gadget guy. Guys look for bells and whistles and fun stuff.”

Chrysler is on an unprecedented winning streak. As Jeep benefits from consumers’ renewed attraction to SUVs, the company also has been aided by strong demand for Ram pickups and Town & Country minivans. That helped propel its U.S. sales up 12 percent last month, the largest increase of any major automaker, according to the average of eight analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The companies report August sales Wednesday.

That would be Chrysler’s 53rd straight month of rising sales — about 4½— after almost being given up for dead before its government-sponsored bankruptcy in 2009. The streak coincides with the leadership of Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne, who ordered an overhaul of Chrysler’s lineup when he took control after its spin through Chapter 11.

Now the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker is preparing to officially combine with Fiat SpA, which Marchionne also heads, in October to create the world’s seventh-largest automaker. And it’s pressing its advantage with hot models and generous incentives that have it gaining ground on competitors such as Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.

“Chrysler just continues to surprise us with the strength they have,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for researcher Autotrader.com. “The prospects weren’t good for Chrysler coming out of bankruptcy, but Marchionne had a vision for where Chrysler could go and he continually pushed the company.”

Chrysler is the only large automaker expected to post a sales gain of more than 10 percent for August, according to the analyst estimates. Industrywide light-vehicle sales are forecast to be little changed at 1.5 million, due mainly to the month having one fewer sales day than last year, according to the average of 10 estimates. Adjusted for seasonal trends, the annualized selling rate may climb to 16.6 million, the average of 14 projections, from 16.1 million a year earlier.

For the full year, analysts estimate deliveries of new cars and light trucks will rise to 16.3 million, the highest since 2006, when 16.6 million vehicles were sold.

Chrysler’s comeback is apparent from the trade-ins rolling into Chuck Eddy’s Youngstown, Ohio, dealership. He once sold mostly to a small, loyal following of buyers looking for a cut- rate price on a second-rate car. Now his used-car lot is filling up with Range Rovers and Toyotas.

“These aren’t reworked Chrysler owners anymore,” Eddy said of the new buyers coming into his showroom to shop for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models. “They are Ford owners, Toyota owners, Range Rover owners.”

Since bankruptcy, Chrysler has introduced a well-received redesign of Jeep’s flagship model, the Grand Cherokee, and resurrected the smaller, lower-priced Cherokee SUV, with an edgy look that has attracted attention and buyers. Chrysler also overhauled the design of its Ram pickup, which was selected by journalists as 2013 North American Truck of the Year.

Glaser, the longtime Toyota owner, said he got the special Trailhawk off-road package on his Cherokee so he can indulge his passion for his GPS scavenger-hunt hobby. And no Toyota gave him the same combination of size and capability.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking ‘Where can I go with my Trailhawk?’” he said. “But I like knowing I’ve got a car that can do it.”