PORTLAND, OR – Demand is so strong for Jeep Wranglers with body-color removable hardtops that Chrysler is expanding availability to a second trim level for model-year ’12.

The $1,715 option now can be had on the top-end Rubicon, having launched in ’11 on the mid-level Sahara. Body-color fender flares also are part of the deal.

Of all ’11 Sahara orders, 80% called for the composite “Freedom Top,” which comes standard with a black, spatter-coat finish. But 20% of those buyers checked the body-color box, according to Chrysler.

“There were times when we had very few soft-top orders and we were running a very, very high rate of body-color,” says Ray Durham, vehicle line executive-SUV.

“That’s why the capacity had to come up,” he adds, referring to the auto maker’s call for additional tooling.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. When Chrysler introduced the modular Freedom Top option in 2006, orders soared.

The auto maker demanded more production and supplier Meridian Automotive Systems responded by adding capacity.

That move ultimately contributed to Meridian’s demise as the global economic recession reared its ugly head soon after and the market slipped into a tailspin, taking Chrysler with it.

This time, Michigan-based Continental Structural Plastics adds tooling as consumer confidence wavers against a backdrop of stunted economic growth.

But Chrysler points to the Wrangler line’s U.S. sales totals to support its product plan. The iconic Jeep enjoyed its best-ever month in July with 14,355 deliveries.

CSP molds and bonds Freedom Top’s component panels at a plant in Ohio. The spatter coat is applied there to those roofs not destined for the body-color treatment, a process handled by Indiana-based Creative Liquid Coatings.

“(Painted) parts get shipped back to CSP and get finished with the rubber trim and glass,” Durham says, adding Chrysler now has enough capacity to produce a body-color roof for every ’12 Sahara and Rubicon hardtop it can build.

Freedom Top buyers benefit from engineering changes required to accommodate body color, Durham adds.

“To create the Class-A surface that we needed to hold the paint, we went to sheet-molded compound very similar to what’s on the (Dodge) Viper,” he tells Ward’s.

“Since we had to change the compounding and the material, strength rates and things like that, we had to retool. And once we retooled, we took advantage to make some changes.”

Among the changes are larger openings. “We increased the glass on the hatch and on the two sides so you get more of the sun and more of the daylight coming in,” Durham says.

And to assist with carrying, fingertip grips were molded into the removable panels above the driver and front-row passenger.

The ’12 Wrangler and 4-door Wrangler Unlimited are available in three new colors: Dozer Yellow, Deep Molten Red and Crush Orange.

Other colors are Natural Green, Deep Forest Green Pearl Coat, Black Crystal Pearl Coat, Bright Silver Metallic Clear Coat, Flame Red Clear Coat, Sahara Tan, Cosmos Blue and Bright White.

Chrysler promises new color freshenings soon.

The Wrangler line, which maintains its $22,045 starting price from ’11, is produced at the auto maker’s assembly complex in Toledo, OH.

emayne@wardsauto.com