DETROIT - Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant could make a half million vehicles a year - triple the capacity now planned, a top company official said here Monday.
In the next three months, the plant at Enterprise South industrial park will have the ability to make 150,000 vehicles a year. But Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive, said the Chattanooga plant ultimately could be expanded to produce 500,000 vehicles if VW decides to make the investment.
"No doubt we're on the move," Browning said at the Detroit auto show, where VW gave the public its first look at the new 2012 Passat midsize sedan. "You've got to put the foundation in place to drive growth."
Officials and industry observers have talked about producing a new sport utility vehicle at the Chattanooga plant as well as Audis, though no decisions have been announced.
Officials with the German auto company sent the message that the German car is made in America. The words "Born in the U.S.A." adorned one of the displays about the new Passat at the auto show.
"The American Passat will make Volkswagen as successful as it [once] was in the U.S.," Ulrich Hackenberg, a VW board member, told a large group of journalists and auto executives.
Browning said he expected about 50,000 of the cars will be built at the Chattanooga plant this year with sales ramping up. The U.S. production of the car at the Chattanooga assembly plant also will create jobs, he said.
In addition to the 2,000 jobs at the plant, VW estimates another 10,000 supplier and other jobs will be created.
Outgoing Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen sat in the new Passat on Monday and gave it a thumbs up.
"It's a beautiful car," he said about the dark blue sedan that VW officials indicate is the biggest Passat the company has made.
Bredesen said he is "perfectly satisfied" with the Passat name, though he understands there were expectations it might have been called something new and different.
"The car makes the name," he added.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who also attended the show, said 85 percent of the new Passat's parts are made in the United States.
"I think the VW brand will grow tremendously," he said, adding the American Passat is thousands of dollars less than the existing brand.
David Zoia, editorial director of WardsAuto.com, said the new car "looks well done." But he said the vehicle "doesn't stand out a whole lot" in its midsize segment.
Zoia added that he understands the reuse of the Passat name.
"You've got that established," he said.
The Chattanooga-made car is larger than the old Passat and starts at about $20,000, according to VW. That compares to a starting price of about $26,000 for the existing Passat.
Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner of economic and community development, said at the show that using the Passat name gives the new car a springboard off a successful foundation.
"I like the name," he said.
Trevor Hamilton, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, said the unveiling of the vehicle is "a historic occasion" for both VW and the Scenic City.
"It puts Chattanooga on an international stage," he said.
The new Volkswagen, dubbed the "Camry fighter" or the "Toyota fighter" in some circles, is aimed at helping make VW a bigger player in the U.S. midsize sedan market. The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Chevy Malibu are some of its stiffest competitors.
After a short show by a drum-playing precision group, VW officials drove one of the new cars onto a stage for its world premiere.
Company officials said the American Passat and the new Jetta will be VW's biggest-selling vehicles in its U.S. lineup in the future. Browning said the car will "change the rules in the midsize segment."
The new car offers three engine choices, including a clean diesel that will provide what VW says is a best-in-class 43 miles per gallon. The car is to go on sale later this year as a 2012 model.