Volkswagen brass meet at Chattanooga plant check out Atlas, make future plans – Chattanooga Times Free Press

Top Volkswagen officials will visit the Chattanooga assembly plant this week as they check out the new Atlas sport utility vehicle and plan what’s ahead.


Dr. Herbert Diess, who heads the automaker’s VW brand worldwide, and Hinrich Woebcken, who oversees the company’s North American region, will meet with Antonio Pinto, the Chattanooga operation’s new CEO.


Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said the German company has spent a lot of money at the Enterprise South industrial park plant and officials say they’re recommitted to the U.S. market.


“Under this political situation, they need to make sure the plant is producing compelling vehicles,” she said. President Donald Trump has talked up the idea of companies putting manufacturing production in U.S. factories.


Krebs said the seven-seat Atlas is “very promising” and a redesigned Tiguan SUV, which is made in Puebla, Mexico, sits in the No. 1 selling compact SUV market.


Plant production

VW’s newly expanded factory in Chattanooga can now produce about 250,000 vehicles a year. Passat production last year was about 93,000 vehicles, according to the company.


She doesn’t see an end to American motorists’ shift from buying cars to SUVs.


“They’ve got to make sure they have lots of those,” Krebs said about VW officials.


In April, VW said there’s room in the market for another SUV, a five-seater, that could be a derivative of the Atlas. A natural production location would be Chattanooga, the company said, though no decision is made.


Additionally, VW officials have talked about plans to assemble electric vehicles in North America, potentially putting production of battery-powered cars in Chattanooga.


The VW plant employs about 3,400 people making the Atlas as well as the midsize Passat sedan after a big surge in hiring over the past year to assemble the SUV.


Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Wednesday that VW and local officials regularly talk about developing the local workforce to meet VW’s labor needs.


Coppinger cited the Volkswagen Academy’s mechatronics programs to help fill the highly skilled jobs maintaining the plant and its equipment as well as another initiative involving high school students at Hamilton County schools and Chattanooga State Community College.


An estimated $100 million of the money that would be raised with the help of a tax increase proposed earlier this week by Coppinger would go to the schools. He said that the county has a lot of people employed in the manufacturing sector, and not just at VW.


“It’s an opportunity,” Coppinger said.


Krebs said that having a trained workforce is “extremely important. The auto work of today is not like 30 or 40 years ago.”


Auto workers today need more skills, she said.


“It’s not just brawn. There’s a lot more brain,” Krebs said. “You’re programming computers and machines.”


She noted that as Toyota and Mazda look at locations for a new joint assembly plant, “workforce is key to that.”


Concerning VW, Krebs said the company is on the road to recovering from the diesel emissions scandal, but she added that “it will be a long road.”


She expects VW Group sales in the U.S. in August will rise about 2 percent.


Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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