Volkswagen CEO touts sales of Chattanooga-made Passat, unveils 2 green cars

Volkswagen CEO touts sales of Chattanooga-made Passat, unveils 2 green cars

January 10th, 2012 by Mike Pare in News

Dancers perform during Volkswagen's introduction of new hybrid and concept vehicles.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

DETROIT -- Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn said Monday the Chattanooga-produced Passat is on its way to becoming "a real blockbuster."

Winterkorn predicted 2012 will be known as "the year of the great comeback" by the German automaker in America.

With its high-selling Jetta, newly designed Beetle and all-new Passat, VW is working to rekindle its contract with American car buyers, Winterkorn said at the North American International Auto Show.

The CEO said the new Chattanooga production plant at Enterprise South industrial park, the carmaker's only one in the United States, is "very important" and one of the keys to the American market.

"It goes without saying that Volkswagen needs to be a top player in the U.S., too," he said. "We'll continue our product offensive."

VW on Monday offered up two new green cars to go along with its Chattanooga-made diesel-powered version of the Passat.

A new Jetta hybrid and a concept E-Bugster, an electric car based on the Beetle, made their world debut at the auto show. They won't be produced in Chattanooga, however, officials said.

Winterkorn's remarks about the Passat came despite the midsize sedan's missing North American Car of the Year honors. Auto journalists picked the Hyundai Elantra for the award over the Passat and Ford Focus.

Still, Passat sales have surpassed 22,000 in just the last four months of 2011, and the Chattanooga plant continues its production ramp-up.

Jonathan Browning, VW of America president, said officials are keeping their eyes firmly on making and selling Passats in Chattanooga.

There has been speculation about production of a second model at the plant -- a sport utility vehicle has been discussed. But Browning declined to address the issue of any other vehicle for Chattanooga, saying that the Passat is off to "a strong start."

Frank Fischer, CEO of VW's operations in Chattanooga, said the plant is making between 450 and 500 cars daily.

The production ramp-up is expected to reach its full level this year. The plant can produce up to 150,000 vehicles a year as it's now configured, though it ultimately could be expanded to produce 500,000 a year, officials have said.

Hans-Herbert Jagla, executive vice president of human resources for VW in Chattanooga, said the plant's existing 2,500-member workforce is enough to meet the Passat's current production levels.

He said that "for a city that can do, our people can do," citing the city's economic development slogan developed by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce: "Chattanooga Can Do."

Browning said VW's sales operation in the U.S. was profitable last year for the first time since 2003. The automaker is showing more organization and discipline in the U.S. than it has in the past, he said.

Volkswagen said in a statement Monday that it delivered nearly 8.2 million vehicles around the world in 2011, a 14 percent rise over the previous year. With its Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and Seat brands, VW moved ahead of Toyota last year to become the world's second-biggest carmaker, behind only General Motors.

Volkswagen has a goal of producing 10 million vehicles per year and passing GM to become the world's biggest automaker by 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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