I'm sitting in a pale gray showroom overlooking even paler gray buildings. A soundtrack of jazz and German techno fades into down-home country music. The featureless monoliths of industry house Volkswagen's newest assembly line; the music hints at their purpose. Two giant video screens light up with images so American I nearly stand up hand over heart. Scenes roll by of children playing baseball, soldiers in fatigues barbecueing hot dogs, and grandmothers dishing out second helpings of warm apple pie. The German contingent of Volkswagen's Engineering team seems particularly proud of this moment. The U.S. team seems pensive. The journalists are optimistic that they'll be served pie later.
The green hills surrounding the big gray boxes aren't part of the German countryside. The product that rolls out the door isn't another in a long line of German sedans designed for Europe, but built for the U.S. with extra cupholders and flatter seats. This is America-Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be exact. The car is the 2012 Volkswagen Passat
, designed exclusively for and built by Americans. Volkswagen
of America president Jonathan Browning stresses the importance of the new Passat, calling it the fundamental pillar of VW's future in the U.S. The plan is to deliver German engineering at a reasonable price. While the VOLKSWAGEN Jetta
compact sedan has always been the volume-seller here, the battle has to be fought with midsizers like Camry and Accord to achieve the dominance VW has demanded of its American arm.
A few years ago, the idea of fighting with the giants of the midsize class was unthinkable. Consumers would pick either of the ubiquitous Japanese sedans with none of the competition's offerings even reaching their peripheral vision. Back then, VW was happy staying out on the fringes and selling to the types of people who drink exotic coffee and buy shiny white laptops. Now, those computers and $4 coffees are commonplace, and domestic and Korean competitors have proven that Honda
are not invincible in the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream. Even with a more crowded market, this may be the perfect time for the affordable German car company to launch a full assault.