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from a report in the Detroit News:


DaimlerChrysler's domestic vehicles are hot in Michigan, but not always in a good way.

Police say the popularity of the cars, and design vulnerabilities the automaker is improving, has them jamming police lists of stolen vehicles. Despite years of pressure by the insurance industry, Chrysler's steering columns remain easy to break and feature ignition systems that can be started without correct keys.

In recent weeks, a rash of thefts has prompted police even in notoriously safe places like Grosse Pointe Shores to warn residents to tuck Dodges and Jeeps into garages or block them into driveways.

In 2005, Chryslers accounted for six of the top 10 most frequently stolen vehicles in Michigan, with 2005 and 2004 Dodge Rams leading the list. Nationally, Hondas and Toyotas lead the way, but Chrysler has occupied at least five of the top 10 spots in Michigan in each of the past four years.

"Thieves steal what they know, and right now, they know a lot of Chrysler products are easy to take," said Terri Miller, director of an insurance industry-funded cooperative called Help Eliminate Auto Theft (HEAT).

The problems come because ignitions that start Chrysler's most popular pickups and SUVs only when correct keys are used are $200 options. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. include electronic ignition immobilizers as standard features on all but their commercial fleet vehicles.

Chrysler officials said they're working on fixes. In the past two years, the company boosted to 87 percent from 55 percent the number of vehicles it sells with standard immobilizing systems.

"Not all our customers want to pay for it. In rural and suburban America, (car theft is) not the same issue," said DaimlerChrysler spokesman Cole Quinnell. "It is standard on most of our vehicles, but some base models make it optional."

Canadian authorities recognized the problem two years ago, requiring all manufacturers to make immobilizing anti-theft devices standard on all vehicles sold there by next September.

Miller said the police and insurers have lobbied with Chrysler for years. The automaker's vehicles are disproportionately stolen in Michigan -- accounting for 36 percent of car thefts in 2005, compared to 22.5 percent of new car sales, industry statistics show.

"This situation won't change until Chrysler's customers demand more and better theft-deterrent devices," Miller said.

And the bad guys know it.

Bennie Taylor Jr., 52, a retired DaimlerChrysler factory worker, had his 2004 Dodge Ram stolen from behind his Detroit home on May 11, the same night thieves swiped his neighbor's Ram.

Taylor didn't bother to pay for Chrysler's optional anti-theft system when he signed the best employee bargain lease he could find.

The truck was recovered six weeks later in Dearborn, battered and missing its popular optional 20-inch wheels and tires. The vehicle remains in the shop, awaiting $13,000 in repairs.

"Chrysler needs to do something about this," Taylor said. "I like that truck, but I'm not sure what I'm going to do to keep someone from taking it again."

About 50,000 cars a year are reported stolen in Michigan, fifth highest in the nation. Claims cost insurance companies in the state $476 million in 2003, according to Peter Kuhnmuench executive director of the Insurance Institute of Michigan. The vast majority occurred in Wayne County, with 31,000 in 2004, the most recent year of available statistics.

Of those, most -- 24,573 -- were in Detroit. Oakland County had 3,419; Macomb County, 3,349.

"We have a real love for the American automobile here in Michigan, whether your motives are legit or otherwise," Kuhnmuench said. "Our history here in Michigan is the American-made muscle car, and Chrysler is hot in our market using that image. That generates a black market demand for the same thing."

Grosse Pointe Shores Public Safety Director Stephen Poloni issued a warning after thieves tried twice in the past few weeks to steal Dodge Durangos -- a high number for a community dotted with cul-de-sacs that prohibit quick escapes.

Both trucks had the optional anti-theft devices that shut off engines before they could be driven away, but not before thieves broke windows and wrecked steering columns.

State Police Detective Lt. Ed Gerds, head of the Western Wayne County Auto Theft Task Force, said thieves are so confident they have tried bold moves.

"The Chrysler plants even get hit, the employee lots," Gerds said. "They are offering great deals so the market is flooded with them and the parts are easy to sell."

In Sterling Heights, a gang of well-organized thieves this month swiped more than $700,000 worth of new Chrysler vehicles from a private lot. But Macomb Auto Theft Squad Detective Lt. John Michalke said it probably was an inside job because the keys were left inside the vehicles.

Four 20-inch wheels and tires from a Dodge Ram pickup can fetch $600 on Metro Detroit streets, Gerds said. The same set costs $3,600 from dealerships.

"Without a doubt, we get more Chrysler products here then anything else. It's tires and wheels. That's what they want," said Paul Ott, owner of Gene's Towing, which runs a major impound yard on Dix in Detroit.

One weekend this month, the tow yard's tally of stolen cars included one Cadillac, a Ford Taurus and Topaz -- and at least nine Dodges and Chryslers.

"The bad guys are lazy," Michalke said. "They won't take a car that is hard to steal. You don't see many Chevys or Fords stolen because they have good anti-theft devices.

"I think Chrysler has made strides, but there is a ways to go."
 

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