VW CrossBlue: 'Concept' for now, but Chattanooga could build it - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

VW CrossBlue: 'Concept' for now, but Chattanooga could build it

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- Automakers build 'concept' vehicles to create buzz for the rest of their product lines.

But the 'CrossBlue', a mid-sized Crossover/Sport Utility Vehicle unveiled at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit Monday, puts Volkswagen squarely in the cross-hairs.

"We're making German engineering more accessible in more places than ever before," says Jonathan Browning, Chief Executive Officer for Volkswagen Group-North America.

As displayed, the CrossBlue holds six passengers on three rows of bucket seats; seven passengers, with optional bench seating on the second row.

One engine option shown is a diesel-electric hybrid with a cruising range of 14 miles on the electric motor alone, a 660-mile cruising range on a full tank, and overall average higher than 35 miles per gallon even under the most inefficient stop-and-go driving conditions.

"I'd like to see it yesterday," Village Volkswagen's General Manager Greg Pope says.

The Chattanooga-built Passat has delivered more than promised, he maintains. But the CrossBlue would prevent him having to send customers seeking larger mid-size to the Audi dealership next door. The 'Q7' luxury six-seater carries a sticker price of almost $60,000.

"The niche that they (many family customers) are trying to reach, that prices them out," Pope says.

But if a CrossBlue were to top out at around $45,000?

"We always felt that this was the plan for Chattanooga to begin with," says Bernard Swiecki, Senior Project Manager for the Center for Automotive Research (CARgroup) in Ann Arbor, MI.

"It's part of getting the most investment out of the plant."

Volkswagen has more than 1340 acres on its campus at Enterprise South Industrial Park in Eastern Hamilton County. Three shifts of more than 3300 workers are able to assemble more than 180,000 of the hot-selling Passat midsize sedans per year. Capacity could top 250,000 vehicles.

Volkswagen sold 117,000 in the U.S. last calendar year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Volkswagen actually planned it so that you could take the existing facility where it is now, and actually build a mirror image facility on the same pad," says J.Ed Marston, Vice President of Marketing & Communications for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President & CEO Ron Harr, and Economic Development Vice President Charles Wood are attending the NAIAS to 'wave the flag' and 'do all the right things,' Marston says.

"This is not a slam dunk, and VW hasn't committed. But we would expect to hear something soon."

"No timetable has been announced," confirms Scott Wilson, spokesman for VW-Chattanooga. "The Academy (Volkswagen's on-campus training facility) will always be in training mode. There are many programs."

Several industry analysts, including CARgroup's Swiecki, Motor Trend, and online sites 'autoguide' and 'thecarconnection', predict that a firm 'go' would introduce the CrossBlue or a variant as 2015 model, rolling out models to showrooms between July and September 2014.

"That's not all that fast a ramp-up, particularly if you were to build it on the same line as the Passat," Swiecki says.

"If they were to share platforms and components, you wouldn't need to build a mirror-image plant. You could run both models on the same line. It all depends on how many you plan to build and sell."

Such a 'maximize the investment' strategy, means that VW might be not be creating several thousand more jobs in Chattanooga; more likely several hundred, Swiecki says.

The mid-to-full size non-premium Sport/Crossover Utility Vehicle segment is crowded; more than fifteen competitors, according to JD Power & Associates. The segment includes Honda's Pilot, Jeep's Commander & Grand Cherokee, and Toyota's Highlander.

Volkswagen has vowed to triple its U.S. sales to 1 million vehicles per year within five years.

Analysts project that the mid-size CUV segment will grow 20% in that time frame.

"They (VW) need to be in that market segment, and they've said as much, often," Swiecki says. "It's more of a matter of 'when' than if."

Village Volkswagen's Pope has been selling cars "long enough to know that you believe rumors when you see the cars on your showroom floor. And Volkswagen is very good about playing its cards close."

"But it (the CrossBlue) would sell, no question," he says.

"Made in the USA is big. And if you're not only able to say 'Made in the USA' but 'Made by Chattanoogans,' well..."

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