Despite a slow start of production with the Jeep Cherokee, Jeep sales set a new record.

Despite the painfully long delays in launching production of the new Cherokee model, sales of Chrysler’s Jeep brand products hit an all-time global sales record for the second year in a row.

Jeep, the cornerstone of Fiat/Chrysler chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne plans to remake the Italian-American automaker , delivered 731,565 vehicles across the globe, beating the previous record of 701,626 established in 2012.

Ever since taking over management of Chrysler after its 2009 bankruptcy, Marchionne has been keen to exploit the potential of the Jeep brand, which he has noted has a strong reputation around the world but which needed the broader distribution network that Fiat could provide.

“Jeep vehicles have now recorded sales increases both globally and in the U.S. market for four consecutive years, with back-to-back global sales records,” said Mike Manley, President and CEO – Jeep Brand, Chrysler Group LLC.

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During 2013, Jeep vehicle sales increased 4% globally versus 2012.  Demand was up a modest 3% in the U.S., but gained a much more substantial 26% in the Asia-Pacific region.  In China – the world’s largest automobile market – Jeep sales grew 29% last year, a figure especially significant considering the brand doesn’t have a manufacturing presence in the booming Asian nation.

Jeep, ironically, was the first Western brand to produce vehicles in China but it lost that operations to its former German partner following the break-up of the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler AG.  Chrysler is now negotiating Jeep’s return to China, though company officials have declined to speculate on when a deal might be completed.  Such a move would, among other things, eliminate import duties that hurt Jeep’s competitive position in the Chinese market.

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The lack of a manufacturing base in China was only one of the challenges Jeep had to work around in 2013.  A key line at the maker’s plant in Toledo, Ohio was down for much of the year due to delays in getting the compact Cherokee model into production.

Even then, distribution of the new Cherokee was halted for several week during the summer while Chrysler and key supplier ZF worked out kinks with the little Jeep’s all-new nine-speed transmission.  Shipments only got underway in late September, more than nine months after Chrysler began the changeover at the Toledo North Assembly plant.

But the initial reception for the Jeep Cherokee has been strong, both among consumers and reviewers. Among other kudos, the new ute has been named one of three finalists for North American Truck of the Year.

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“We are especially pleased with the performance of Jeep Cherokee, which sold more than 25,000 units in its first two months in dealer showrooms,” Manley added.  “We achieved this record while being out of the world’s largest SUV segment for three quarters of the year.  With a full lineup of capable, efficient SUVs – and with Cherokee arriving in Jeep showrooms across the globe – we expect to continue our sales momentum in 2014,” Manley said.

Jeep vehicle sales in 2012 were led, both globally and in the U.S., by the bigger Grand Cherokee with 255,005 sold globally, including 174,275 in the home market. Wrangler was the next most popular Jeep model with 210,715 global sales, including 155,502 in the U.S.  The numbers also underscore the growing importance of the exports from the factories in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio

The sales totals for Jeep Compass, Patriot and Wrangler marked their best-ever global and U.S. sales numbers, Chrysler said.

(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)

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