published Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Hamilton County officials expected to push for VW SUV in Chattanooga

Volkswagen builds vehicles in Hamilton County.
Volkswagen builds vehicles in Hamilton County.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FAST FACT

Bolstered by a 35 percent jolt in U.S. sales, Volkswagen set a new global mark in 2012 for VW brand sales, the automaker reported Friday. The VW brand, which includes the Chattanooga-made Passat, closed 2012 by delivering 5.74 million vehicles worldwide, up 12.7 percent over 2011, the company said.

FOR MORE

See Web updates starting Sunday and stories next week from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit by Times Free Press Deputy Business Editor Mike Pare.

Hamilton County officials are expected to lobby Volkswagen's top brass next week in Detroit for production of a sport utility vehicle in the company's Chattanooga plant.

"It's a huge opportunity," said Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, adding officials want to make sure VW knows of the city's interest "in a big way."

A delegation including Harr, his top economic developer, Charles Wood, and both Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield are to push for the new production while at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The SUV, designed specifically for the U.S. market, is expected to be unveiled by VW during the show.

Late last year, top VW officials said they're considering the introduction of a new midsize SUV for the North American market, and its Chattanooga plant is a contender for building it.

"If we produce the car, Chattanooga would certainly present itself as an option for doing the whole thing," VW CEO Martin Winterkorn said then. But, he also said other locations within the VW plant network would also be considered to build the SUV, which would be positioned between VW's existing Tiguan and Touareg models.

Coppinger said he already has been advocating for Chattanooga to garner the project and plans to continue to do so in Detroit, where the show opens to media on Monday.

"We're talking about additional jobs," he said.

Coppinger also cited the ripple affect on VW suppliers and people spending more money in the county.

"I plan to continue to do that -- to try to recruit it just as any new business," he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said he, too, will be encouraging VW to put in new vehicle assembly, but he didn't expect an announcement next week unless it goes somewhere else.

"I don't think we'll hear a dramatic expansion into another model," he said.

But Littlefield said he's excited about the Chattanooga plant's direction and sales of the Passat midsize sedan that's assembled in the massive facility.

Frank Fischer, who heads VW's operations in Chattanooga, said he is fighting within the company for production of a second vehicle at the plant.

He said other VW factories are competing as well, and the company has not yet made a decision.

"It's very hard work," Fischer said.

Currently, the VW plant employs about 3,300 workers making the Passat. That's up from 2,000 employees VW originally promised to hire at the $1 billion assembly plant four years ago.

The $1 billion plant is expected to build about 180,000 vehicles this year, and it has a maximum capacity of 220,000 or more in its current configuration.

Ultimately, VW officials said the factory could be expanded to produce 500,000 vehicles a year, if the carmaker decides to make the investment.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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