This story was updated with additional information on Monday, April 19, 2021, at 6:14 p.m.
Ten years ago, the first customer car rolled off Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly line and a Night Blue Metallic Passat SEL sedan was driven out of the huge factory.
Today, more than 1 million vehicles later, the plant's more than 3,800 employees are revving up for potentially its biggest milestone as they prep for assembly of a new all-electric SUV.
"There's still lots of opportunity for growth," said Charles Wood, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development, about the sprawling factory. "By VW standards, it's still kind of in its infancy."
Volkswagen's Chattanooga product family began with the Passat, said Dean Parker, head of manufacturing at the plant.
"We all cheered as the first one drove off the line because we knew it was only the beginning," he said about the April 18, 2011, ceremony.
In 2008, VW had announced it would build its only U.S. assembly plant in Chattanooga in a $1 billion project with plans to hire 2,000 workers.
The start of operations at the facility capped more than two years of work to transform the site of a former U.S. Army munitions factory into the world's first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum-certified automotive manufacturing site.
More than 900 employees who helped assemble the Passat and were at the plant when the first sedan left the line are still working there a decade later, according to the company.
The plant, in addition to its workforce, supports thousands of other jobs in the region in terms of its supplier network.
"Their supply chain continues to grow," Wood said.
He cited the addition of Sese Industrial Services, which announced in February it plans to build EV axle components in a $42 million plant minutes from the VW factory that will employ 240 people.
"They've still got tier ones [businesses] opening facilities in close proximity," Wood said, adding that VW suppliers have located across the tri-state region over the decade.
Tom du Plessis, Volkswagen Chattanooga's chief executive, said in an interview last month that VW officials are seeing increased demand for its existing Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs, which are made at the factory along with the Passat.
Also, he said, there's a lot of interest in the ID.4 electric SUV, for which officials are building an $800 million plant expansion to begin production in 2022.
The plant CEO said plans are for its workforce to go to three shifts to meet expected demand for the SUV, which is now built in Europe and shipped to the U.S. The company is hiring 150 more workers in a first phase, he said.
"Hiring is on target. Training is 100 percent on target," du Plessis said, noting that employees will need specialized instruction dealing with electric vehicles.
While the Passat sedan is still built in Chattanooga, the car is a less-desired vehicle in the marketplace as consumer demand has shifted to SUVs over the years.
Nearly seven times as many Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs were sold in the first quarter of 2021 than the Passat, according to Volkswagen of America.
In the quarter when VW sales rose 21% over the same period last year in the U.S., 64% of the vehicles sold were SUVs. That's up from about 17% four years ago, the company reported.
Passat sales were 4,535 vehicles in the 2021 quarter, down 24% from a year ago, the company said. But the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport sales were 30,520, up 98% compared to the same quarter in 2020.
Wood said VW and the auto sector are playing "a huge role" in boosting wage growth in the region. He said, for example, that production wages grew 11% from 2019 to 2020.
"Companies are trying to keep costs down for Chattanooga and the region. We've got pretty strong wage growth," Wood said.
Meanwhile, he said, VW has positioned itself to be in "a really significant spot" to take advantage of the move to electric vehicles.
"This will be transformational for the industry," Wood said. "[Volkswagen] is coming in a committed stance and an aggressive stance."
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.
VW CHATTANOOGA TIMELINE
* July 2008 - Chattanooga factory announced
* February 2009 - Construction starts
* August 2010 - 1,000th employee hired
* April 2011 - First customer Passat rolls off line
* July 2011 - 2,000th employee hired
* May 2012 - 100,000th Passat produced
* May 2013 - 250,000th Passat built
* January 2015 - Atlas SUV expansion starts
* May 2017 - First customer Atlas delivered
* March 2018 - Atlas Cross Sport announced
* January 2019 - EV expansion announced
* November 2020 - Work starts on EV test lab
Source: Volkswagen, archives