Thousands of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV workers in Sterling Heights will have to wait a bit longer to return to work.

The automaker has extended a six-week shutdown at the plant to nine weeks to reduce supply of slow-selling Chrysler 200 midsize sedan.

The plant is expected to be closed until April 4, according to an FCA US spokeswoman. Production stopped Feb. 1; it originally was scheduled to restart March 14.

UAW Local 1700 President Charles Bell said about 2,600 of the plant’s more than 3,000 employees are laid off. Others, including some skilled trades and repair workers, continue to work at the plant to maintain machinery and conduct repairs, even though cars are not being produced.

The extended shutdown comes roughly six weeks after Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the company plans to stop producing the car in the coming years, which was fully redesigned for the 2015 model year.

Marchionne said the plan to cease production of the car as well as the Dodge Dart compact sedan at its Belvidere Assembly plant in Illinois is due to a “permanent shift” in consumer preference from cars to crossovers and sport utility vehicles.

“So one of the things that we’ve decided to do is to essentially de-focus, from a manufacturing standpoint in the U.S. … the passenger car market,” he said Jan. 27 when announcing changes to the company’s 2014-18 business plan.

Marchionne said the company was continuing discussions with potential partners that could “provide a product from their facilities” to allow the company to cover gaps in the lineup left by the Dart and 200.

The company plans to use freed-up plant capacity to build more hot-selling Ram Truck pickups and Jeeps.

2015 marked the fifth time in six years that light-duty trucks, including some SUVs and crossovers, outsold cars. Trucks accounted for 55.7 percent, or 9.7 million, of vehicles sold last year, up more than 1.1 million from 2014. That’s the segment’s highest percentage since 2004, according to Autodata Corp.

Chrysler 200 sales through the first two months of the year in the United States were down 61 percent compared to the same time period a year ago to less than 12,000 vehicles sold.

mwayland@detroitnews.com

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