Volkswagen has started shipping dealers about 350 new Passats a day from its Chattanooga assembly plant in preparation for the car's market launch in just a few weeks.
"This is one of the most important events for Volkswagen in decades," said Carsten Krebs of Volkswagen of America about the sale of the midsize sedan starting the last part of September. "The Passat is one of the keys to VW's growth strategy in the States."
On Sept. 15, key TV commercials are to begin running, he said. Shortly after, Krebs said, customers will be able to buy a Passat and drive it off a dealer's lot. The exact date that customer sales will begin wasn't disclosed.
On Tuesday in Chattanooga, nearly 5,000 Passats of all models and colors sat on the plant's huge loading yard as workers put vehicles on train cars headed to the more than 600 VW dealers across America.
Kevin Charlet, manager of VW's outbound vehicle logistics in Chattanooga, said trainloads are going to locations such as Washington state and California first because of the distance from the plant.
"Right now, everything is by rail," he said, noting that 85 percent of the vehicles will go to dealerships by train. Trucks are expected to carry Passats to be delivered within 400 miles of Chattanooga, Charlet said.
Andreas Linke, director of quality assurance for VW in Chattanooga, said the German automaker is going to great lengths to ensure the Passats aren't damaged during delivery.
All Passats receive protective covering on the tops of the vehicles, exterior mirrors and other points outside and inside, he said.
Linke said Passats with the 2.5-liter engine are the most common version of the cars being shipped, though all models are being delivered. VW has priced the base 2012 Passat with a 2.5-liter engine at $19,995.
"It's a great moment for us," Linke said, noting how far the plant has come in less than three years since construction started.
Guenther Scherelis, the automaker's general manager for communications in Chattanooga, said the plant is producing about 1,000 Passats a week. Plans are to push production to about 450 vehicles a day, he said. As cars are shipped, they're constantly replaced on the loading yard, Scherelis said.
The number of Passats each dealer will receive has a lot to do with past sales of VWs, officials said.
Brad Cobb of Village Volkswagen in the city said the dealership expected to receive about a dozen new Passats soon.
Cobb said he's especially excited about the clean diesel model that VW claims can go 800 miles on a tank of fuel.
Earlier this summer, each VW dealer received a couple of Passats to show potential customers and take orders. Cobb said some customers have placed orders and are just waiting for their cars.
The dealership has received orders for about 20 cars, an official said.
The shipments that began last week mark the first time that VW has shipped domestically made cars to U.S. dealers since its Pennsylvania assembly plant closed in 1988.
The Chattanooga plant is the car company's first effort since then to make autos in the U.S., so the Passat's launch is seen as vital to VW's new efforts to gain more market share in America. The company has a target of selling 1 million VWs and Audis annually in the U.S. by 2018, or about triple the existing figure.
Krebs noted that VW has plowed $1 billion into the new plant and the Passat.
"It is the first tailor-made VW for the U.S. market," he said.