Chrysler Group can expect Jeep Wrangler sales to remain strong now after moving to increase the flow of parts for one of the redesigned SUV’s key selling features.

Called “Freedom Top,” the $1,585-$1,835 option consists of three removable roof panels to enable open-air driving. And demand has been so strong Chrysler has called on supplier Meridian Automotive Systems to make more.

“They’ve authorized us to increase our capacity,” Meridian President and CEO Richard Newsted confirms.

Newsted declines to reveal the value of the transaction but indicates Meridian will be investing in an existing plant.

However, there are no plans to add a third production shift to the Wrangler’s assembly site in Toledo, OH, Chrysler says.

Last summer’s addition of the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited to Jeep’s lineup has given steady boost to the brand’s sales totals. According to Ward's data, Wrangler sales through April – 2-door and 4-door models – were up nearly 78% compared with year-ago.

Related document: Ward's U.S. Light Truck Sales by Line and Brand, April 2007

Chrysler reports April Jeep deliveries rose 40% vs. like-2006 and 10% year-to-date.

The steep curve in Wrangler demand was evident soon after production began. And during January’s National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, supply chain bottlenecks were top-of-mind for Chrysler President and CEO Tom LaSorda.

Wrangler demand is “way above our production plan,” LaSorda said at the time. “So when you get into that situation, you're trying to ask suppliers to give us parts.”

Even Wrangler’s standard-equipment soft-top supplier, Colorado-based Bestop, is running production seven days a week, Ward's is told.

Dealers are relieved to learn of Chrysler’s aggressive play to increase availability of the Freedom Top. Al DePalma, sales manager at Goldstein Chrysler Jeep in Latham, NY, tells Ward's he has a backlog of orders for Wrangler Unlimited models equipped with Freedom Top.

“I’ve got probably12-13 people waiting for them,” he says.

Customers prefer the modular roof to the one-piece removable top featured on the previous-generation Wrangler. “It’s just a lot easier than the old hardtop,” he adds.

While Newsted says Meridian plans to tool up for additional production “as soon as possible,” it could be third quarter before the Freedom Top pipeline is completely filled.

Currently, the product is manufactured at Meridian’s plant in Huntington, IN.

“As the volume increases, we will probably be transferring the 2-door version to another Meridian facility to support the increase of the 4-doors,” Newsted tells Ward's. “But we haven’t done that yet.”

Other strong April sales performers for Chrysler were the Dodge Ram pickup, up 10.8%, and the auto maker’s minivan offerings, which benefited from a special promotion. April year-over-year deliveries of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan models rose 34.7% and 10.9%, respectively.

Asked how Chrysler could achieve gains in a market that saw overall decline, North American sales chief Steve Landry jokes: “Pixie Dust.”

Landry recently was named executive vice president-NAFTA sales, global marketing, services and parts.

The auto maker also launches a May incentive program called “Maximize Your Miles,” which features low-rate financing for 60 months. In addition, 0% financing is available with bonus cash across the auto maker’s Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler showrooms.

Chrysler saw a 17% increase in April sales outside North America. Its Dodge Caliber C-car, which is leading the brand’s planned charge into China next year along with the Avenger midsize sedan, was the leading seller.

“The expansion of the Dodge brand has been a catalyst for the growth we’ve seen in both mature and emerging markets outside North America,” says Thomas Hausch, vice president-international sales. “In both Western and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East, Dodge vehicles have been the top-selling Chrysler Group products, telling us that there is increasing demand around the world for this distinctly American-styled brand.”

emayne@wardsauto.com