Chicago, Illinois (CNN) -- President Barack Obama praised autoworkers at a Ford plant in Chicago Thursday, and reiterated his administration's high hopes for the U.S. auto industry.
Ford is the only major U.S. automaker that didn't take a government bailout.
"That was a testament to your hard work and choices the company made," the president told the workers. "If your competitors had gone down, the suppliers you use here would've gone down, too. And the brand of American autos would've diminished."
Later this year, the Chicago assembly plant will begin production of a new, fuel efficient 2011 Ford Explorer. "Ford has dedicated itself to increasing fuel efficiency on many models," Obama said. "The next generation Explorer is as much as 30 percent more fuel efficient."
The company recently announced that the Chicago plant is adding 1,200 new jobs. The positions were made possible by the new Department of Energy loans aimed at helping companies retool their plants to make more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The president reiterated his recent message that the U.S. auto industry can be sustained and has the potential to grow.
He said when he came into office, the automobile industry was on the brink.
"Some thought we should just have walked away from the American auto industry. But that's not how you build a better future and a better America," Obama said. "You don't quit, you compete... I put my money on the American worker; I place my bets on the American worker any day of the week. Because of your work and your sacrifice, the industry growing. Each of you is proving naysayers wrong."
During visits to GM and Chrysler last week in Detroit, Michigan, the president praised the recovery of the embattled U.S. auto industry and celebrated the tough choices he says made a comeback possible.
"Last year, many thought this industry would keep losing jobs, as it had for the better part of the past decade," Obama said. "Today, U.S. automakers have added more than 55,000 jobs since last June."
He said both Chrysler, now owned by Italy's Fiat, and General Motors Corp. have rebounded from their government-brokered bankruptcies and are back on track to grow.
While in Detroit, Obama also made the case for why the federal government's investment in the auto industry was a wise move.
In the 12 months before he took office, the president said, the U.S. auto industry had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and had seen its sales drop by 40 percent. He cited estimates suggesting more than 1 million people would have lost their jobs if Chrysler and GM, two of the three big U.S. automakers, had been allowed to liquidate.
Thursday, Obama said all three U.S. automakers are operating at a profit for first time in six years.
"Ford is committed to selling cars all over world," the president said, and the company plans to sell the new Explorer in more than 90 countries. The planned export of thousands of vehicles overseas will mean more jobs in the United States, Obama said. In a statement, Ford said the Explorer is the most-exported of the company's North American-made products.
As an aside, the president said his last car before "the Secret Service made me stop driving" was a Ford Escape.