Volkswagen worker Joey Gilliland drove the first customer car made in Chattanooga out of the automaker's plant Monday as the company sets its sights on churning out about 500 Passats a day.
"We have come a long way ... but there's also still a lot of work," said Frank Fischer, the plant's chief executive.
He and more than 1,600 employees cheered the arrival of the first of 9,000 all-new Passats that VW plans to build and stockpile in coming months for the kickoff of sales in late summer.
Gilliland, a Hixson resident who works in quality assurance at the $1 billion plant, navigated a night-blue metallic Passat SEL with 18-inch wheels onto a small platform. He drove four other employees as passengers, each from other key parts of the factory.
Fischer said the first customer car won't be sold but will stay at the new plant, likely on display.
VW officially will mark the opening of its only U.S. assembly plant on May 24.
Future vehicles will be shipped to dealers across North America as VW tries to make inroads in the key midsize sedan segment against the likes of Toyota's Camry, Honda's Accord and Ford's Fusion.
Hans-Herbert Jagla, the plant's executive vice president of human resources, cited the plant workers' "passion for detail."
"We are feeling really confident about our team members," he said. "They're striving for perfection."
Don Jackson, president of manufacturing in Chattanooga, mentioned the skills that plant workers have learned, though there's still room for improvement.
"We're still hiring people," he said. "We're still developing people. What's good enough today is not good enough for tomorrow."
However, Fischer said the new Passat's quality was examined personally last week by VW Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn and other key officials during a visit to the plant.
"They checked the quality of the car and gave us very positive feedback," he said.
VW has produced hundreds of test vehicles over the past several months leading up to Monday. Officials said they'll continue to drive the cars for endurance and quality purposes.
At the ceremony, Signal Mountain High School's marching band played nearby, the blue- and white-shirted VW workers clapped and shouted and the German automaker hit a milestone that began almost three years ago.
That's when Hamilton County and city officials gave the go-ahead for clearing part of the Enterprise South industrial park site that was pitched to the automaker. But the land was so densely forested, VW site selectors complained it was too hard to properly see.
Within a day, bulldozers and local government workers started taking down trees and brush, and VW officially picked Chattanooga for the 2 million-square-foot assembly plant about two months later over sites in Alabama and Michigan.
VW never looked back, pushing ahead during the Great Recession with construction on the new plant that's expected to employ between 2,000 and 2,500 workers and make 150,000 vehicles a year.
Fischer said plans are to keep rolling out new Passats "very smoothly, very gradually" until it can hit the 500-a-day mark in the second half of the year.
"There's still lots of training we have to accomplish," Fischer said.
Gilliland, who has worked for VW for a little more than a year and test drives the vehicles, said the new Passat "drove really well ... very nice."
"I was inspecting some of the first cars that came out. I've seen how it's come along from the beginning. It's nice to see all the kinks worked out," he said.
The other workers who rode in the first car were Jessica Davis, assembly shop; Carlton Lowe, body shop; Sha'rone Jones, paint shop; and Lisa Knight, of the support area.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.