As the first ready-to-ship Passats roll off the assembly line at Volkswagen's Chattanooga factory in March, a company official said a decision to expand production could come later this year.

"There are no clear decisions yet. We have to prove ourselves," said Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, on Monday.

Fischer said VW is aiming for a March production launch of the midsize sedan, which is to go on sale at dealerships nationally in the third quarter of this year as a 2012 model.

"Up to that time we have to produce a certain number of vehicles so all our dealers have the required number," he said about the all-new car that will start at about $20,000.

Don Jackson, the automaker's president of manufacturing in Chattanooga, said production is on target.

"We're right on schedule," he said. "We see a lot of pride and passion for detail. We're excited about the team effort."

Jackson said officials' focus is on the new-to-America Passat.

"We have to have very high quality from the very beginning," he said. "We have to have customers that really desire the vehicle."

Fischer added that the plant is built to be expanded from 150,000 vehicles annually to 250,000. Officials have said that work inside the plant's paint shop could be done to enable expansion.

"There are [other] products to be considered," Fischer said, though he didn't elaborate.

Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive, said at the Detroit auto show in January the Chattanooga plant ultimately could be expanded to produce 500,000 vehicles - if VW decides to make the investment.

He also talked about the need for VW to sell more sport utility vehicles and crossovers in the United States.

85,000 applications

Employment has reached more than 1,400 people at the Chattanooga plant, officials said.

Hans-Herbert Jagla, executive vice president of human resources for VW in the city, said 85,000 applications have been received for the more than 2,000 posts the German automaker plans to fill at the plant.

Jagla said 35,000 of the applications were for the 1,200 production workers VW is to hire. The first shift is almost hired and plans are to fill the second shift around June and July, he said.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said he's pleased VW has lived up to its promises related to the plant.

"I'm always amazed at how quickly this has happened," he said about the $1 billion assembly plant.

Littlefield said he expects the local supply base will continue to grow as VW powers up output. An adjacent supplier park has eight companies with plans to employ about 525 workers.

"There are some [companies] that will supply the plant from other locations," he said. "As VW ramps up, it will become more necessary for suppliers to be closer at hand. This is going to be a busy area."


* March - first customer cars assembled in city plant

* 2nd quarter - plant officially opens

* 3rd quarter - Passat sales to start at dealerships

* September - VW managers to meet in Chattanooga

Source: Volkswagen