Chrysler 200 production ends Friday in Sterling Heights

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

It’s the end of the line — both figuratively and literally — for the Chrysler 200, a car that saved one Metro Detroit plant from closure and ushered in the automaker’s popular “Imported from Detroit” tagline.

Friday is the final day of production for the midsize sedan at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Sterling Heights Assembly plant. Most of the nearly 1,700 hourly workers remaining at the plant following a shift elimination in July are on temporary layoffs – or will be – as the company retools to build the next-generation Ram 1500. The retooling is expected to take much of 2017.

A 2015 Chrysler 200 moves down the production line at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., Friday, March 14, 2014.

Fiat Chrysler in July announced plans to cease production of the car in December but did not give an exact date. Company spokeswoman Jodi Tinson confirmed to The Detroit News the end of production of the Chrysler 200. She stressed that FCA US has said the truck will result in more jobs overall being added to Sterling Heights.

Fiat Chrysler earlier this year told state officials it will add 700 new jobs when production of the pickup begins at the plant. The additional jobs are part of the company’s plans to invest $1.48 billion in Sterling Heights Assembly plant to produce the pickup as well as enhancements, including a paint shop renovation and test track.

State officials, which granted the company millions of dollars in incentives, have said the company would have a base employment of 4,600 at Sterling Heights before the new hires. That would be a substantial increase from the nearly 1,900 employees, including salaried, at the plant as of July.

Tinson on Thursday said the company at this time is not confirming total workforce expected at the plant, because “it is too soon to confirm what total employment will be at SHAP at full production.”

The number of new and retained jobs in Sterling Heights likely will be determined by the number of workers who follow the Ram 1500 from Warren, where the pickup is currently produced – or if a third shift is added.

The temporarily laid-off employees are entitled to a combination of State Unemployment Insurance and Supplemental Unemployment Benefits, which are paid by FCA US.

Once the state-paid benefit 20 weeks of State Unemployment Insurance runs out, FCA US will cover the full cost of unemployment benefits. Because the layoff is classified as temporary, employees are entitled to SUB for the duration of the layoff.

“Our goal from the beginning was to work with FCA-US to make sure that all of our SHAP members are trained and working to minimize any loss of income during the product transition,” said UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, in an emailed statement to The News. “We are working hard to achieve that goal.”

The benefits are expected to equate to about 70 percent of workers’ take-home pay.

Some employees, primarily skilled trades, will not be laid off, as they will be needed to support the retooling, according to the company.

Indefinitely laid-off employees, the company has said, would be placed in open full-time positions in other plants “as they become available within the Detroit labor market based on seniority.”

UAW Local 1700 President Charles Bell, who represents workers at Sterling Heights Assembly, was not available for comment.

Fiat Chrysler has not announced when production of the next-generation Ram 1500 is expected to begin. However, CEO Sergio Marchionne in May said the new pickup is expected to go on sale by January 2018.

Some work has already started on the retooling, Tinson said in an email: “We are not providing specific time lines, but it is obviously a much more involved process to convert a plant from car to truck production.”

Marchionne said Warren Truck Assembly will continue to produce the current Ram 1500 alongside the next-gen pickup being produced in Sterling Heights for a period of time before it would “embrace the new architecture for the Grand Cherokee and the Grand Wagoneer,” which is expected in 2018 or later.

Producing both generations of the pickup simultaneously could help the automaker produce more pickups for its fleet business without impacting residual values of the new pickups — similar to what the automaker is doing with its minivans. The Chrysler Pacifica was initially expected to replace the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Cararvan; however, the company continues to produce the less-expensive Dodge minivan.

Fiat Chrysler employs more than 9,500 people at the assembly plants in Sterling Heights and Warren as well as at supporting stamping plants.

The end of the Chrysler 200 is part of a previously announced plan by Marchionne for the company to focus U.S. production on high-margin pickups and SUVs.

Fiat Chrysler ended production of the compact Dodge Dart at its Belvidere Assembly plant in Illinois in September to make room for production of the Jeep Cherokee, which is moving from Toledo Assembly to help increase production for the Jeep Wrangler.

Marchionne has said that the company was looking for a partner to produce cars for the company — potentially badged 200 and Dart — however there have been little to no updates recently on those plans.

Sterling Heights Assembly launched production of the all-new 2011 Chrysler 200 on Dec. 6, 2010 — following then Chrysler Group LLC’s emergence from bankruptcy. The all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 — the current generation — was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show on Jan. 13, 2014. The plant celebrated production on March 14, 2014.

Analyst have said even though the current 200 was far superior than its predecessor, consumer preference shifting to utility vehicles and an extremely competitive mid-size sedan segment with already-established competitors doomed the car.

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Twitter: @MikeWayland