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Volkswagen Aims Toward U.S. Production

The redesigned Volkswagen Jetta for 2011

Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Hyundai. What do these and other import-brand automakers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have in common? They have factories in the U.S.

Not everyone realizes it, but Volkswagen was the first major foreign auto company in modern times to establish a manufacturing site in the United States. From 1978 well into the ‘80s, the German automaker built Rabbit hatchbacks at a plant in Pennsylvania, as well as in Europe.

Volkswagen soon will renew its American presence with a new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Already, the company has hired 750 of the 2,000 employees who will staff that facility, which Volkswagen claims will generate $12 billion in economic growth for the area. Like every other automaker that’s come to the U.S. for manufacturing, Volkswagen erected the new factory in the south, where non-union workers are the norm.

“We are a part of American life and an iconic brand,” said Toscan Bennett, vice-president for product strategy at Volkswagen, during the company’s media preview of the redesigned Jetta compact sedan. As part of VW’s ambitious product plans, a new midsize sedan is coming. Also on the schedule a reworking of the Beetle.

So, how do you redesign an icon–in this case, one that has lost some of its luster. When Volkswagen re-introduced the legendary Beetle, brought up-to-date for 1998, it captured–or recaptured–the hearts of millions. Though far different from the Beetles that had plied American streets from 1949 into the 1970s, the New Beetle flaunted a profile that differed from–yet largely resembled–the original. Even if it was essentially a Golf underneath, the New Beetle quickly established a personality all its own, in both coupe and convertible form.

Product planners aren’t telling about specifics for a next-generation Beetle, but they’re far more talkative when it comes to diesels. Volkswagen has long been a leader in diesel passenger-car technology for the American market, having launched its first U.S. diesel-engine model back in 1983. TDI (turbodiesel) models are part of the near-future picture, intended to power both the redesigned Jetta and the Golf hatchback. Jetta and Golf hybrid models also are on tap in the next year or so.

“People love German engineering,” Bennett added, and “diesel is a core competency for this company.” Sales are up nearly 30 percent through the first half of 2010. “We’re cautious about the industry,” he said, “but more ambitious with our own sales targets.”


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