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DETROIT - Fiat Chrysler plans to open a new assembly plant in Detroit to build SUVs, according to published reports.

Rumors have abounded for weeks about FCA's plans in the city, but company officials have declined comment.

The Detroit News, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday that the company plans to "revive Mack Avenue Engine II, which has been idled since 2012, as an assembly plant building a new three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee for model year 2021."

The report said the company would then retool Jefferson North Assembly for future production.

The news comes as FCA's sales have risen in recent months on the strength of its Jeep and Ram brands, showing that its early bet to shift production away from passenger cars to SUVs and trucks is paying off.

The Italian-American automaker's expansion plans stand in marked contrast to General Motors, which apparently plans to shut down the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant along with four other facilities in North America. That announcement last week, including the potential loss of thousands of good-paying automotive jobs, has been met with anger from union leaders, politicians, including President Donald Trump, and workers.

Cindy Estrada, the vice president/liaison between FCA and the UAW, could not be immediately reached for comment on the FCA news.

An official announcement on the new plant could come before the end of the year.

Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions, said the Jeep brand has been expanding its reach and needs extra capacity as the brand moves to new global markets. The specific rollout of production at the new or revived plant follows FCA's previous game plan for other facilities.

"As FCA has done in the recent past, they will use the new plant to help ramp up production of the next-generation Grand Cherokee while winding down the old generation in order to keep supplies steady on this high-profit product. Jeep will add a new 3-row version of the Grand Cherokee alongside the all-new 2-row version," Fiorani said.

Production of the three-row Grand Cherokee is expected before the end of 2020, with the new two-row Grand Cherokee following about six months later.

Jeff Schuster, president and forecaster for LMC Automotive, said the Mack Avenue Engine Plant is rigged for assembly line work.

"They would have to add a paint shop, body shop and other areas," he said. "The talk is hundreds of employees, not thousands."

Schuster added, "If you look at FCA's utilization, it's running extremely lean. ... You can only squeeze so much out of existing factories. This property exists."

At issue is what can be done to retrofit the plant in a cost-effective way, said Schuster, whose company provides market forecasting for auto manufacturers, suppliers and the financial community.

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

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