Chrysler’s Toluca plant in Mexico will soon be shipping Fiat 500s to China, CEO Sergio Marchionne said at an event in the country.

The plant, on which the automaker spent US$550m, and added 622 jobs, gearing up for the Fiat, will build about 120,000 units this year for export to the United States, Canada, and South America, adding output for China by the third quarter of 2011.

“Fiat 500 production here is an important landmark because it reaffirms Chrysler’s commitment to Mexico that dates back to 1938,” said Marchionne. “Mexico is in an ideal position for production of this car. Because of its free trade agreements with neighbours to both the north and south, it is a bridge between NAFTA and Latin America.

“And for the Mexican market, where the 500 has already been sold for several years, this marks an important shift from a vehicle imported from Europe to one that is built locally,” added Marchionne.

Marchionne and officials and employees from the Toluca factory had joined Mexican president Felipe Calderon to celebrate the launch of the 2012 500 at Los Pinos, the official residence and office of the president.

“A little more than a year ago, I promised President Calderon that I would be back to celebrate the launch of the Fiat 500 and I am pleased that I could keep that promise today,” said Marchionne. “With the assistance of the Mexican government, we have been able to prepare the Toluca Assembly Plant for production of the first Fiat, a vehicle that demonstrates the level of cooperation between our two companies and reintroduces the brand to the North American market after more than 28 years.”

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Changes made to the 500 for the US market included a new six-speed automatic transmission – sourced from Aisin Seiki – in place of the automated manual offered in Europe and elsewhere.

Chrysler will launch the cabriolet version – the 500C – this spring.

Chrysler has about 7,000 employees and six plants in Mexico, among which the company builds Ram trucks and the new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 engine in Saltillo, as well as stamping operations.

In addition, Chrysler de Mexico has been overseeing distribution of the Fiat brand in the country since October 2010.

Toluca has built various Chrysler vehicles for domestic and export markets since opening in 1968. The plant assembled the PT Cruiser from 2000 until the model line was axed in July 2010.

Production of the Dodge Journey began in January 2008 and the Fiat 500 in December 2010.