STERLING HEIGHTS, MI – With CEO Sergio Marchionne presiding, Chrysler officially re-opens its assembly plant here for production of the redesigned ’15 Chrysler 200.

"You've always believed things could be changed," Marchionne tells workers today at the plant, which was slated to close in 2010 after the recession walloped the auto industry and put Chrysler into bankruptcy.

City, county and state support, including financial relief in the form of tax abatements, kept the Sterling Heights plant open and helped win the new 200 contract.

The automaker, now part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, invested $1 billion in 2011 in the aged plant, which previously was owned by the U.S. military and, in the early 1980s, Volkswagen, although the German automaker never assembled a vehicle here.

The investment provided badly needed updates, specifically in paint and body-assembly areas.

The new, $850 million paint shop replaces 1980s and 1990s-era technology in the old paint shop, and includes a new automated topcoat process, booths with automatically-adjusting lights that get brighter for inspection of darker colors, and wall-mounted robots that limit contamination.

A $165 million body shop includes several new technologies, including a Kuka laser-brazing system that saves money by eliminating the trim normally needed where body sides meet the roof.

The first shift of 200 production slowly is getting under way. Marchionne vows the car will exceed the quality of its competitors, which are some of the best-known nameplates in the industry including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

"I believe American workers can build vehicles with quality as good as anywhere in the world," Marchionne says of the plant's workforce.

Almost 2,800 workers are employed at this plant, including 800 whose jobs are the result of insourcing processes that previously had been outsourced, such as rear-suspension assembly.

Following the ceremony, Marchionne speaks on a variety of topics, including the next-generation Jeep Wrangler, which he vows will keep many of its well-known characteristics, such as a solid rear axle, to maintain its unique market position.

However, he says the vehicle must get lighter in anticipation of 2025 U.S. fuel economy and emissions regulations, which mandate automaker fleets achieve 54.5-mpg (4.3L/100 km).

The Wrangler is built at a Fiat Chrysler plant in Toledo, OH, that is running flat out. Marchionne jokes employees there almost worked on Christmas Day due to brisk demand for the vehicle.

The new Jeep Cherokee also is assembled in Toledo and its plant has room to grow, although Marchionne is cautious about adding another shift until he sees long-term sustained demand for the new CUV.

Of the Cherokee's ill-shifting 9-speed automatic transmission, Marchionne says he's not happy with the unit, but says its status as a new product almost guarantees issues will arise that need fixing. Fiat Chrysler and 9AT supplier ZF are working on fixes now, he says.

He also claims unhappiness with the status of Fiat-brand models in the U.S., which have been low sellers.

"(We need) to work harder" to make Fiat a success, Marchionne says, noting the upcoming 500X CUV, which shares a platform with a new entry-level Jeep, the Jeepster, should boost demand.

Marchionne also promises a next generation of Chrysler's minivan by 2016 and a refreshed Dodge Dart compact sedan by 2015.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com