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Rendering by Volkswagen of America / The Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SUV is another part of the German automaker's SUV offensive in America.
As we look at the Cross Sport, it will probably lean a little bit more prefamily or postfamily.

Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant has hit the start button to initially assemble its newest product, the five-seat Atlas Cross Sport SUV, but don't expect to see the vehicle in dealerships just yet.

The plant that employs about 3,800 people is in the so-called "pre-series phase" where workers make vehicles but continue to adjust and improve the product, said Amanda Plecas, the factory's head of communications.

She said the actual production launch at the plant for the new SUV will take place later this year.

Antonio Pinto, Volkswagen Chattanooga's chief executive, said this month that the vehicles which customers can buy will start appearing in dealerships early in 2020.

The German automaker agreed to spend $340 million to bring the five-seat SUV to the American market.

The SUV has its origins in the Chattanooga-made seven-seat Atlas, which hit the market about a year ago. The bigger Atlas helped push Volkswagen of America sales upward last year, and officials have high hopes for the Cross Sport.

Scott Keogh, who heads Volkswagen of America, said earlier this year that while the Atlas is seen as a family vehicle, the Cross Sport will appeal to a different dynamic.

"As we look at the Cross Sport, it will probably lean a little bit more pre-family or post-family," he said. "A lot of people want a stylish very cool car."

While VW's U.S. sales were about 9 percent SUVs in the past, its new offensive in the segment including the Atlas and smaller, all-new Tiguan has pushed that figure to about 50 percent.

"It's a good story there," Keogh said.

Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor for Kelley Blue Book, said all automakers including VW are boosting SUV volume and model count.

"Manufacturers are looking at different ways of slicing and dicing the segment," he said, citing two-row versions, six-cylinder engines and other features.

At the same time, the Chattanooga factory is producing the redesigned Passat midsize sedan that's expected to go on sale this summer, Keogh said.

While some U.S. automakers are cutting back or stopping the sale of sedans altogether, VW officials believe there are still a lot of sales in the segment.

Keogh said that Americans bought more sedans – some 4.3 million last year – than all passenger vehicles sold in Germany in 2018.

"The Passat is a vital entry point into the brand, and as other brands exit the segment, we plan to offer sedan buyers a very cool new home," he said.

Also ahead for Volkswagen in the city is an electric vehicle plant. VW plans to spend $800 million and hire 1,000 more workers to make a battery-powered SUV by 2022.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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