Joanne Benante has been driving a Honda Civic hybrid and was looking for a new environmentally friendly vehicle when she landed on the Volkswagen Passat with the clean diesel engine.
The Norcross, Ga., woman Thursday picked up her new car at VW's Chattanooga plant -- the 100,000th Passat made at the factory -- and drove it out of the facility's conference center amid applauding production workers.
"They asked me to come up here and drive it home," she said.
The 53-year-old woman is the kind of buyer VW is targeting -- someone whose last car was bought from a key rival such as Honda as VW tries to nearly triple U.S. sales to 1 million by 2018.
Jimmy Ellis, vice president of the Atlanta dealership that sold Benante her car, said Passat sales so far are 20 percent better than what was anticipated.
"It's been well received," he said. The factory hit the 100,000 mark for the redesigned Passat nine months after sales started in the United States.
Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operation, said the factory is up to 3,000 employees and should be at the planned 3,500 mark in two months.
Fischer said the plant is making about 600 cars a day and there's room to push that number to up to 640. In late summer, Fischer said the plant will go to three production teams and increase capacity even more.
September 2011 - 10,000th car
February 2012 - 50,000th car
May 2012 - 100,000th car
He said there's no decision about expanding the plant or supplier park at this time, though "we have to be ready for further expansion."
Concerning reports about the potential of a midsize utility vehicle made in Chattanooga, Fischer said VW's plants compete worldwide.
"This is why we try to focus on quality," he said. "We'd like to have it here."
Don Jackson, president of manufacturing for VW in the U.S., said the factory was built with flexibility to permit expansion.
Benante, who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she likes the Passat's diesel engine on the model she purchased, which also hikes fuel mileage.
What "pushed her over the edge," she said, was that the car was made in Chattanooga using American workers.
Benante said she's not a first-time VW owner, noting she has a VW camper van. On Thursday as she slipped into her night-blue Passat on the conference center floor, she gave a thumbs up to the hundreds of surrounding employees and drove out of the building to the parking lot. She then was given a plant tour, according to VW.