BELVIDERE, Ill. _ Chrysler said Thursday it plans to add 1,800 jobs at its Belvidere Assembly Plant to build the Dodge Dart this year.

"You are the new Chrysler," Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told workers gathered at the plant to hear the announcement.

Last week, Chrysler said it would add 400 to 500 workers to two existing shifts, but Thursday is the first time the company released the total employment number.

About 2,700 now work at the plant, assembling the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot. When the workers are added, it will be the first time since 2008 that the plant will operate three shifts.

Marchionne said that the company's Belvidere plant is one of the most productive of all Fiat and Chrysler plants. It ranked third out of 34 plants among many manufacturers in a recent study, Marchionne said, and is being used as a benchmark for Fiat's plants in Europe.

"The truth is that you are working in a plant that is an example of the kind of mosaics that we are working to create," Marchionne said.

The Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker also recently spent $600 million to build a new 638,000-square-foot body shop here.

"This significant investment ... will ensure this tremendous job engine for the Rock River Valley will be utilized for many years to come," U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Illinois, said in a statement.

Chrysler's Belvidere plant, which opened in 1965, has long been a cornerstone of the Belvidere and Rockford communities.

In the early 1970s, the large Chrysler Newport sedan was assembled here. But in the late 1970s, the plant was transformed so it could build the smaller and more fuel-efficient Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon.

From 1994 to 2005, it built the Dodge Neon. From 2005 until 2011, the compact Dodge Caliber was produced here. Production of the Caliber ended in December.

Now, the plant's future is resting on the success of the Dodge Dart, arguably the most important new car Chrysler has launched since it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The compact sedan is expected to be the first credible small car for any Chrysler brand in years. Chrysler discontinued the Dodge Neon in 2005.

It also is the first car to combine Fiat and Chrysler technology, and is built on a widened and lengthened version of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

The Dart was revealed at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month and is scheduled to go on sale this spring.