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FCA commits $1 billion to Warren, Toledo plant retoolings

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will spend a combined $1 billion retooling its decades-old Warren Truck Assembly plant to build Jeep Wagoneers and Grand Wagoneers as well as its Toledo Supplier Park to one day build Wrangler-based Jeep pickups. 

Both retoolings are expected to be completed by 2020, and will add a combined 2,000 jobs, the automaker said in a statement Sunday. The plant actions were not unexpected, and were first revealed during 2015 negotiations with the UAW.

However, in its release Sunday, FCA did include one surprise: The automaker claimed that “an added benefit of the investment in Warren is that it will enable the plant to produce the Ram heavy duty truck, which is currently produced in Mexico.”

That sentence would indicate one of two possibilities. One is that FCA had altered its plans to build the luxury-level Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer on the same unibody platform as the next-generation Grand Cherokee and instead plans to build them as truck-based frame vehicles, like the Chevy Suburban.

The other possibility is that the money will be used to add a second unibody line to Warren Truck Assembly, which has been building Dodge and later Ram pickups since the 1930s.

FCA’s Toledo Assembly Complex currently builds the unibody Jeep Cherokee and the body-on-frame Jeep Wrangler, but on two separate assembly lines.

A spokesman for FCA declined to comment. CEO Sergio Marchionne is scheduled to hold a series of private press conferences at the Detroit auto show Monday morning. FCA will display its Chrysler Portal concept minivan — unveiled last week at CES in Las Vegas — at the Detroit auto show Monday, but has no scheduled product press conference.

In a written statement, Marchionne said “the conversion of our industrial footprint completes this stage of our transformation as we respond to the shift in consumer tastes to trucks and SUVs, and as we continue to reinforce the U.S. as a global manufacturing hub for those vehicles at the heart of the SUV and truck market.

“These moves, which have been under discussion with [UAW President] Dennis Williams and the rest of the UAW leadership for some time, expand our capacity in these key segments, enabling us to meet growing demand here in the U.S., but more importantly to increase exports of our mid-size and larger vehicles to international markets.

“The expansion of our Jeep lineup has been and continues to be the key pillar of our strategy. Our commitment to internationalize the Jeep brand is unwavering, and with these last moves, we will finally have the capacity to successfully penetrate markets other than the U.S. which have historically been denied product due to capacity constraints. In addition, these all-new products will reach new consumers, as well as those that have been part of the Jeep tradition,” Marchionne said.

Trump impact

FCA’s announcement, meanwhile, upped the ante as automakers respond to threats from President-elect Donald Trump to slap new taxes on imported vehicles. The auto industry has a keen interest in getting relief from tough fuel economy rules enacted by the outgoing Obama administration.

Many automakers plan to use the Detroit auto show to tout investments in the U.S. and a commitment to U.S. employment against the backdrop of Trump’s criticism of automakers for shipping vehicles into the U.S. from Mexico.

Most of the major automakers in the U.S. have substantial vehicle making operations in Mexico, as well as complex networks of parts makers that supply their factories in the U.S. and support jobs and investment in states such as Ohio and Michigan.

FCA’s investment decisions were not related to Trump’s recent attacks Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. for building cars for the U.S. market in Mexico, people familiar with company’s moves said on Sunday.

The company had already signaled plans to expand truck and SUV production at its U.S. plants, and discontinued production of small- and medium-sized cars in two U.S. factories.

FCA executives did not confer with Trump before making the decision on the new big SUVs and a Jeep pickup truck, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking. The same source said Marchionne wanted to get out the news about adding jobs and investment in the U.S. in case FCA encounters more criticism from Trump.

Still, Fiat Chrysler’s announcement landed as executives global auto industry executives gathered for the annual auto show in a climate of growing uncertainty about the trade and regulatory policies the new Republican administration will pursue.

Trump, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, has talked about rolling back environmental regulations, and supporting corporate tax cuts — moves automakers would welcome. He has just as explicitly warned that he will move to raise the costs of importing vehicles from Mexico, a policy industry executives said could hurt their businesses.

Source: Crain’s Detroit Business (originally Automotive News)
Photo: Crain’s Detroit Business