Just ahead of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant's official opening next week, the first wave of 2,000 VW dealer employees hit the city Thursday to kick the tires on the all-new Passat.
Over the next six weeks, VW is bringing in groups of 100 salespeople from its dealers nationwide along with some service technicians. They're touring the factory and learning firsthand about the sedan they'll soon start selling and working on.
"It's a mark in time and history" for the automaker, said Laura McKelvey of Herndon, Va.-based Volkswagen of America.
She said VW is flying the contingents into Atlanta and then letting them drive the Passat to the Chattanooga plant, putting them on both Interstate 75 and back roads. They're staying overnight, touring the $1 billion assembly plant and then driving the cars back to Atlanta for classroom training sessions on the car, McKelvey said.
She said it's the first VW vehicle launch in which the carmaker has brought in such a big collection of dealer employees to a site since it unveiled the Touareg sport utility vehicle in the U.S. in 2004.
"It's a great launch location," the 24-year VW employee said about the Chattanooga plant that will hold its grand opening Tuesday.
Scott Ecker, a salesman for Zimbrick Volkswagen of Madison, Wis., said the new Passat is "a home run."
"It's the perfect size," he said, adding he likes the car's fit and finish and fuel mileage.
Russell Blackstone, e-commerce director for Hewlett Volkswagen in Georgetown, Texas, said the Passat is "a vast improvement" over the European-built car with the same name it will replace in the United States.
Calling the vehicle "the flagship" for VW in North America, he added that it's also less expensive than the old Passat. The car has a starting price of about $20,000, according to VW, down from about $27,000.
Blackstone said he hopes to receive the first Passats in about 60 days at his dealership.
McKelvey said the VW people coming to the city represent more than 500 dealerships from across the country, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Salespeople are doing comparison drives in such Passat competitors as Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata, she said.
The groups are "really an extension of the factory," McKelvey said, adding the German automaker wanted the salespeople to take notice of workers' attention to quality and detail.
The Chattanooga plant already employs more than 1,700 workers. After it fully ramps up in 2012, the factory is expected to produce 150,000 vehicles a year and employ between 2,000 and 2,500 people.