Chrysler Group is hiring 1,000 workers for a third shift at its plant in Belvidere, IL – site of Dodge Caliber production and future home of the Jeep Compass and Patriot.

The move will boost Belvidere’s maximum capacity to about 400,000 units annually. Total employment will hit 3,650.

The third shift is expected to start in July as Chrysler prepares to build the Patriot, which shares its underpinnings with the Compass and Caliber.

Compass production is slated to begin May 30. The Caliber launched in January, replacing the Neon as the auto maker’s small-car offering.

The Caliber has been well received by the automotive media and early sales are strong, with Chrysler reporting 11,236 deliveries in April, nearly twice the total it recorded in March – the first month the car was on sale.

As of April 30, there was a 12-day supply of Calibers in Chrysler’s system and the average car lasted just six days on a dealer lot.

Gary Dilts, Chrysler vice president-sales, likened Caliber’s sales pace to buzz surrounding the PT Cruiser and Chrysler 300 debuts.

Dealers now are taking orders for the Compass. While wary of the sales prospects for a Jeep-brand cross/utility vehicle with all-wheel drive instead of 4-wheel drive, they are consoled by its connection to the Caliber.

“The product is going to be excellent because it is what Caliber is,” says John Kelly, sales master at King Cotton Motor Co., a Memphis-area outlet for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.

“We’ve got to see what the Jeep people think. Jeep people are Jeep people. There is nobody else, in my mind, more loyal. They have special waves that they give each other.”

If hard-core Jeep loyalists react favorably to the Compass, Kelly expects widespread, word-of-mouth acceptance because Jeep owners “interact very well.”

Jeep is wise for pursuing attributes such as greater ride comfort because the brand has untapped potential as a family-vehicle brand, he adds. Case in point: the pending 4-door Wrangler.

Chrysler is, predictably, upbeat about Belvidere’s third shift.

“It’s great to know we’re going to help put America back to work, building vehicles we know our customers will enjoy,” a Chrysler spokesman writes on thefirehouse.biz, a media-only blog site.

The Belvidere vehicles also share Chrysler’s newest family of powertrains, the so-called “World Engines” designed and built in cooperation with Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. at a Global Engine Mfg. Alliance plant in Dundee, MI.

The 4-cyl. engines are available in displacements of 1.8L, 2.0L and 2.4L. They generate outputs of 148 hp, 158 hp and 172 hp, respectively, and portend combined city/highway fuel economy ratings of 29.5 mpg (12.5 km/100 L) to 24.5 mpg (10.4 km/100 L).

This is significant because they offer fuel economy at a time when gas prices are having a chilling effect on the sales of key Chrysler products. Deliveries of its trucks and utility vehicles fell 15.7% last month.

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emayne@wardsauto.com