Four years after it was supposed to be shut down, Chrysler’s assembly plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan was recently re-opened. Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne himself presided over the plant’s re-opening, telling workers: “You’ve always believed things could be changed.”
The Sterling Heights plant was scheduled to be closed in 2010 following the recession which significantly affected the auto industry and forced Chrysler to file for bankruptcy. The factory was kept open with the support of the city, county and the state. Michigan provided financial help through tax abatements.
All the support were also instrumental to the plant’s securing of the Chrysler 200 contract. The plant is where the revamped midsize sedan for model year 2015 will be built. The plant used to be owned by the U.S. military as well as Volkswagen, though the German carmaker did not assemble a single vehicle here.
Chrysler, now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, provided a $1 billion investment in the plant in 2011. The money was allotted for the improvement of the existing facilities, particularly the paint and body-assembly areas. At present, these areas are updated and boast better equipment.
The $850 million paint shop is now without the 1980s and 1990s-era technology. It has a new automated topcoat process, booths equipped with lights that adjust automatically for better inspection of darker colors, as well as wall-mounted robots created to reduce contamination.
Meanwhile, the $165 million body shop has modern technologies of its own. One of the area’s most notable additions is the Kuka laser-brazing system. It does away with the trim typically required between the body sides and roof, saving money for the company in the process.
Currently, there are about 2,800 people working at the Sterling Heights plant. 800 of the workers hold jobs created from insourcing processes that used to be outsourced, like rear-suspension assembly.
The production of the first batch of 200s is about to start. Marchionne said that the vehicle will surpass the quality of some of the industry’s most popular nameplates, which are the 200’s main competitors. These include the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and America’s best-selling car, the Toyota Camry.
After the plant’s opening ceremony, Marchionne also spoke about what is next for the other vehicles under Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Of the new Jeep Wrangler, he said that it will retain its best known features, including the solid rear axle. He noted that keeping its key characteristics is crucial for the Wrangler to keep its market position. One thing that will be different, though, is that the vehicle will be made lighter. This is because of the 2025 U.S. fuel economy and emissions regulations, which will require all vehicles to reach 54.5 mpg.
Marchionne also talked about the latest Jeep Cherokee, which he admits he is not happy with. The problem with the unit is its 9-speed automatic transmission, which Fiat Chrysler and the transmission’s supplier ZF are fixing at present.
Both the Wrangler and Cherokee are built in Fiat Chrysler’s plant in Toledo, Ohio.
In the same event, Marchionne confirmed that there will be a redesigned Dodge Dart compact sedan by next year and a new generation of Chrysler’s minivan by 2016.
Photo credit: chrysler.com