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Staff file photo / Volkswagen employees perform tests on vehicles as they reach the end of the assembly line at the plant that will build the ID.4 all-electric SUV in 2022.

Volkswagen Chattanooga's chief executive said Friday that he expects production at the plant to hit new records as the pandemic eases this year and workers start building a new electric SUV in 2022.

"We have really good demand," said Tom du Plessis, CEO of VW's Chattanooga operations. "Current production is very positive."

He expects 2021 production to hit a high of 180,000 vehicles this year, with volume up 44% so far in 2021 over a year ago. Despite the pandemic and plant lock down last year, the factory still produced vehicles at its third highest level since opening more than a decade ago, the CEO said.

"Our plan is to pass 200,000, and 300,000 in the longer term," du Plessis said in an interview at the sprawling factory.

He said that an $800 million expansion to build the ID.4 electric SUV is on time, with pre-series production to start later this year. VW, which has more than 3,800 employees at the plant, expects to start making the five-seat, compact SUV in the third or fourth quarters of 2022, the factory CEO said.

Demand is strong for the Atlas SUV, the Atlas Cross Sport SUV and the Passat sedan, and initial interest in the ID.4 is "unbelievable," he said.

The factory is in the first phase of hiring about 150 more workers, and as volumes increase, plans are to go to three shifts, du Plessis said.

Every production worker will undergo training when it comes to the electric vehicle, he said, noting there will be three levels.

Concerning the pandemic, du Plessis said there is still mask wearing at the plant and the factory is following Centers for Disease Control protocols.

Plans are to offer coronavirus vaccinations at the plant for its employees, he said.

Seeking Alpha has reported that Volkswagen is planning to deliver around 150,000 ID.4 vehicles worldwide this year. It said that VW plans to launch at least one new fully electric model annually in coming years.

Mark Gillies, senior manager for product and technology communications for Volkswagen of America, said the company has sold out of the so-called "First Edition" version of the ID.4 and deliveries are underway.

He added that VW dealers in the U.S. should have received demo vehicles of the battery-powered SUV.

"People who have seen it in the dealerships seem to be excited by it," Gillies said.

In terms of price, the ID.4 Pro version coming on the market is competitive against its electric rivals, he said. Also, with a $7,500 federal credit for U.S. buyers, that puts the price comparable to a well-appointed traditional compact SUV, Gillies said.

"It's a more engaging driving proposition," he said when compared to a gas-powered SUV, noting the ID.4 has "instant torque."

One feature that's expected to drive adoption of zero-emission EVs is young people and their concerns about climate change, Gillies said. He said a survey shows that 82% of parents believe their children should be taught about climate change.

While some indicate that VW's interest in EVs was driven by the fallout of Dieselgate, Gillies said the company was already working on battery-powered platform before that took place in order to meet clean-air requirements.

"Dieselgate sped up the adoption," he said.

Meanwhile, Gillies said he's encouraged by the company's rising stock price amid a rollout of the vehicle and VW's future plans for EVs.

"It's the future," he said. "Legacy car companies are seen as the past."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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