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VW Ready To Start Rolling New Passat Off Line

VW's Chattanooga Operations said the first 2012 Passats destined for the marketplace will roll off the line next week to be sold in the second half of this year.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) -- Workers starting production of a cheaper, larger Passat at Volkswagen Group of America's new plant in Chattanooga have a message for car shoppers: It's a winner.

But there are questions. The name is familiar but this Passat is different. Why risk buying an unproven car? Why trust workers who have no track record?

VW's Chattanooga Operations said in a statement Friday that the first 2012 Passats destined for the marketplace will roll off the line next week to be sold in the second half of this year.

"I know what we've had to do," said Auby Longley, a maintenance technician who works on robotic equipment in the $1 billion plant.

This Passat, unlike its predecessor with the same name and a price of about $28,000, will have a sticker price around $20,000 when it hits showrooms.

Longley said the 1,600 employees are "committed to making a quality product." Longley, 50, said he has driven the new Passat and wants to buy one.

After training for months under the German automaker's designers and engineers, building hundreds of test vehicles and learning a new workplace culture that shouts attention to quality, Adrian Leslie's $14.50-an-hour job is installing rear axles, springs and struts and O2 sensors.

Leslie said working for Volkswagen in Chattanooga carries a kind of celebrity status, because he is among just over 1,600 workers hired from more than 85,000 applicants.

"I feel a great accomplishment when I say that," said Leslie, 35.

"I can tell them we are building a real good quality car," he said. "I think it's what we need for the American market."

An auto industry analyst says consumers should be cautious.

Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer and program manager Gabriel Shenhar said his publication hasn't yet driven the 2012 Passat.

"We have sat in it," Shenhar said.

The larger Passat is 191.7 inches long and has a 110.4 inch wheelbase, which provides an increase in rear seating space. The added 3.7 inches is primarily in the back seat area.

"It is a very roomy sedan," he said.

Shenhar said the new Passat, compared to its predecessor, has a dashboard that is a "lot more substantial and solid," similar to the pricier VW Touareg SUV.

Volkswagen's decision to stick with the Passat name is not as risky as changing it, he said. VW stopped production of the Passat with the 2010 model.

"Changing a name is not always a wise thing," Shenhar said.

The timing of introducing a midsize model is not a surprise.

"The segment is full of competent other models but Volkswagen had a hole in their lineup since the departure of the previous Passat," Shenhar said. "It is going to fill a hole."

Passat competitors include the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata.

He said Consumer Reports is "going to hold judgment until we finally drive the car."

"It is going to be a leap of faith with this car, coming out of a brand new plant in Chattanooga," Shenhar said. "We usually advise that during the first year of production, a brand new car from a brand new plant, it would usually be wise to wait."

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who helped recruit the automaker, said the success of vehicles built at other assembly plants that have opened in the South shows there is no reason to doubt that Volkswagen's Passat will be a winner.

"We went through all the jokes when Mercedes started their plant" decades ago in Alabama, Littlefield said. "All the jokes about whether Southerners can build cars. We can and not just NASCARs and hot rods."
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