Thursday, January 13, 2011

Volkswagen introduces Passat in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA — Volkswagen's new Passat sedan made its hometown debut Wednesday at a celebration ceremony that doubled as a tribute to Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose team is credited with bringing the German automaker to Chattanooga.
Bredesen, a Democrat, made what he described as his final official public appearance before Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam is sworn in on Saturday.

Bredesen joined VW's Chattanooga Operations President Frank Fischer in unveiling the new midsize sedan at a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon, two days after VW first showed it off in Detroit at the 2011 international auto show.

The Chattanooga VW plant, a $1 billion project with production jobs starting at $14.50 an hour, is starting assembly of the new Passat in the next few months, with the cars expected in showrooms by the fall.

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A VW plant employee, Ben Edwards, 33, said during a lunch break that his job includes installing wheels, tires and seats. The plant is already making prototypes of the vehicle.

A former self-employed contractor, Edwards said that after almost a year of training at VW, the approaching startup of full production is an exciting time. He said one challenge is VW's quality check on every production step.

"That's all anybody talks about is quality," Edwards said.

The new Passat is expected to sell for about $20,000, about $7,000 cheaper than current models built in Germany and nearly matching the price of competitors such as Fusion, Camry, Accord and Sonata.

The new car is four inches longer and one inch wider than the current version. Mileage is estimated at 43 miles per gallon on the highway for a diesel version, 32 mpg for a 2.5-liter traditional gas engine and 28 mpg for a 3.6-liter.

In a Wednesday telephone interview, David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, called the new Passat an excellent vehicle. "If it's (priced) in the low $20s, I think it will be very successful," he said.

He said building the Passat in Chattanooga reduces by about half its $100 per hour labor cost in Germany. "The cost of German labor is huge," he said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, told the audience of about 1,500 people that Bredesen was the team quarterback in recruiting VW to Tennessee. Corker also said that Bredesen, a former Nashville mayor, has shown himself to be the "ultimate deal maker."

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