VW charges into new era with Chattanooga car

VW charges into new era with Chattanooga car

January 9th, 2011 by Mike Pare in News

Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - December 01, 2010. Enterprise South complex including Volkswagen, VW, Erlanger, and Amazon. Aerials from Hamilton County and Bradley County.

Volkswagen opens a new era in America today as it unveils the first photos and the name of the midsize sedan that will be produced at VW's Chattanooga production plant.

"It is the Chattanooga car," said Frank Fischer, who heads the German automaker's operations in the city. "People from Chattanooga have built the vehicle and set up the plant."

On Monday at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, the country's most prestigious, VW officially will display the car some industry analysts are calling "the Toyota fighter."

VW CEO Martin Winterkorn will use a restored downtown Detroit fire hall as the venue for showing off the initial images of the car.

Fischer said the car is the cornerstone of VW's growth strategy to nearly triple sales in the United States and help the company surpass Toyota as the world's No. 1 automaker before 2018.

He said the $1 billion plant in Chattanooga shows the car company's commitment to the American market.

"We needed production," he said.

The unveiling is a momentous occasion for the automaker as well as the Chattanooga region that has seen its economic fortunes swell since attracting the company to Southeast Tennessee in 2008.

How well the new sedan is received by industry experts and the buying public will affect not only VW's drive to become the world's largest automaker but its future as an economic engine for the area.

For Chattanooga, the Enterprise South industrial park plant will provide more than 2,000 jobs and already has spurred the creation of hundreds of additional openings from suppliers.

Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, said that landing Volkswagen in 2008 has helped put the city on the map when it comes to economic development.

"I continue to think we're better positioned than just about anybody out there," said Wilson, calling VW "a marquee name."

a new start

VW became the first foreign car company to build vehicles in the United States after World War II. But it hasn't built a car in America since the late 1980s, when its Pennsylvania plant closed after about a decade amid disappointing sales.

The company's U.S. market share dropped to about 2 percent before VW's top officials decided to return to the market in a big way with a first-ever vehicle designed and built for American motorists.

The car will replace VW's existing Passat in North America. The sedan is reportedly a little larger than the Passat, but will cost thousands of dollars less than Passat's $26,000 base price tag.

FAST FACT

Volkswagen's new Chattanooga-made sedan is seen by officials as the cornerstone to the company's strategy, dubbed Mach 18, of nearly tripling U.S. sales to 1 million units by 2018.

UPCOMING COVERAGE

The Chattanooga Times Free Press will have journalists At VW's North American headquarters outside Washington, D.C., and at the Detroit auto show for the unveiling of VW's new midsize sedan, being built in Chattanooga. Visit timesfreepress.com for coverage Sunday morning from a news conference at VW's North American headquarters in Herndon, Va. For the first photos of the car from its unveiling Sunday night in Detroit, visit timesfreepress.com and watch WRCB Channel 3. See Monday and Tuesday's newspapers for full coverage and photos. And on Jan. 16, the newspaper will produce a 48-page special report on the new car.

Fischer said the Chattanooga plant remains on track to start production within the next three months. It already has produced vehicles for testing and it will soon turn to assembling cars for dealers to use in training and displaying in showrooms, he said.

Production will increase in "a step-by-step approach" with an eye on quality, Fischer said.

"There are a lot of challenges ahead of us, but as it looks right now, we feel absolutely positive at what the team has achieved," he said.

Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America's CEO, said the plant is setting a global standard in terms of state-of-the art training, production and environmentalism. He said the unveiling in Detroit will offer VW a chance to create a positive first impression about the car.

"There will be many important milestones ... but there's nothing like a first impression," Browning said.

In a testament to all the hours that he and countless others at VW Chattanooga have put in recently to be ready for the unveiling, Fischer said he hasn't even seen his house in daylight over the past eight weeks.

He cited support from officials at VW's headquarters in Germany as well as locally, adding people here have kept the promises that were offered during recruitment of the company.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.