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U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., exits the all-new Volkswagen Passat after a test drive around Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga. Alexander toured the plant Friday to check on its progress. and said that with rising gas prices, the fuel efficiency of the new Volkswagen Passat would be attractive to motorists. Staff Photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander stepped out from behind the wheel of a black, all-new Passat at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant Friday and quipped, "They let me drive."

The Tennessee Republican, after a short tour of the $1 billion factory and a drive on the plant's campus, said VW is bigger than the 2,000 jobs the automaker has pledged to bring to the city.

"The Volkswagen plant will be a huge job magnet for years to come to the Southeast Tennessee area," he said, adding the 2 million-square-foot facility will continue to draw suppliers to the region.

Suppliers will provide "thousands of good-paying jobs in addition to the jobs of the plant itself," he said.

Alexander called the factory "an engineering marvel" and said he is surprised how fast it came out of the ground.

"This is intricate engineering," he said.

Alexander termed the new mid-size sedan "fun to drive."

"It's very roomy," he said. "It looks good. I think it will be very successful."


Officials from 32 of the plant's suppliers checked out the new Passat at the factory Thursday as the company gets feedback leading to production of customer cars, Volkswagen CEO Frank Fischer said.

The senator said that with fuel prices rising, American motorists will be drawn to the Passat, which Volkswagen maintains can get up to 43 miles per gallon with its clean diesel engine.

He said his children learned to drive on a VW Thing and his daughter now has a VW Jetta.

"I think there will be a Volkswagen Passat in the Alexander family before too long," Alexander said.

Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operation, said the plant is on schedule to produce the first cars for customers in April.

Leading up to that point, the plant's 1,500 workers have produced 700 test bodies and painted 600 of them, he said. Fischer said the plant has made 500 test cars.

Some of those test vehicles have been delivered to Volkswagen's research and development team and quality staff at other locations, he said.

On other matters:

• Alexander said the budget question before Congress is will it stop spending money it doesn't have.

"We're borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend. Now if Frank was operating the plant this way, he'd be fired," the senator said.

• Tennessee has a special relationship with Japan, Alexander said in the wake of the tsunami that hit that country Friday. He cited the large number of Japanese families that have come to the state as companies opened plants here.

"This is a huge tragedy," he said.