The Not-So-Sweet Smell Of Success

Tim Marrs

It was 100 degrees when I landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but it was a dry heat. Wait a second. After checking my notes -- no, it wasn't. It was a disgusting, moist heat, the kind where sweat pours off you like an angry geyser and you start wondering where you might find a nice, heavy torque bar to smash in your face on account of the ungodly humidity, and you're also asking yourself why people bother living east of the Rockies in summer. Down South proved, disturbingly enough, to be indistinguishable from my New York home -- no wind, 110 percent humidity, and not even raining. Although I didn't know it, the fact that it hadn't rained for some time here was to impact my life in ways I could never have anticipated.

Paralyzing heat was only the first rude surprise. The other gasp inducer, easily worse, came when I returned from a jolly dinner with our hosts from Volkswagen, who'd brought us here to tour their brand-new factory and drive the new, U.S.-only Passat. Opening the door to my room at The Chattanoogan, I was greeted by the most incredible stench, a world-class pong such as would have attended the first runner-up in the Coney Island International Hot Dog Eating Contest had he just vacated my en suite bathroom after a postcompetition pit stop.

I called the front desk and said there was a problem. "I know," said the receptionist, leaving me to consider how she could know, when I hadn't even told her what it was. Perhaps it was the gasping on my end of the receiver. "I think it's the bathroom," I managed to stammer. "No, it's not," she politely replied. "It's our city. It smells kind of bad sometimes. We don't know when it will be fixed -- or if it will be. I'm sorry."

O death, where is thy sting? We know where your stink is.

The following morning, a hired driver taking us to the VW plant in a diesel Touareg painted a fuller picture: one of the city's municipal wastewater processing centers emits noxious vapors in periods of sparse rainfall such as the one Chattanooga was experiencing, and the odor tends to blanket the west side of town from late afternoon through mid-morning. It's the source of considerable local shame.

Well, no surprise there. Of course, it's not the fault of the kind and courteous citizens of Chattanooga. And it's most assuredly not VW's fault -- their plant is a model of green factory practice. But it is all of their all's problem, and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce ought to get busy right away. Whether it's an initiative to fix the problem or, if they can't afford that, maybe they can spring for an "It Only Smells Bad At Night" or "What Reeks in Chattanooga Stays in Chattanooga" campaign. Because the current situation makes recommending the city as a vacation destination -- or as a place to locate your heavy industry -- problematic. One thing's certain: it's definitely not time for VW to launch its factory-delivery program here, unless they're targeting the scatophilian community and Passat-driving sulfur fetishists.

All of which serves to remind us that car companies will go to an awful lot of trouble to avoid dealing with the United Auto Workers union. Tennessee is a right-to-work state, the type of place where unions can't get very far, holding down wages and benefits -- surely some kind of irony for VW, which was founded by a trade union and remains, at home, one of the most thoroughly unionized companies, with the voice of its IG Metall union quite high in the corporate mix. Meanwhile, twenty percent of VW's shares are owned by the German state of Lower Saxony, which crosses swords with unions at its political leaders' peril. Union and management are at each others' throats, as might be expected, but apparently one thing they can all agree on is that American workers are a different matter and deserve to be paid less. Is this what they mean by American exceptionalism?

Not that people aren't happy for the jobs. Our old pal and former Automobile Magazine executive editor, Mark Gillies, now Volkswagen's manager of product and technology communications, allowed how the company received more than 85,000 job applications for the just over 1500 places they've filled to date. Now there's an economic recovery for you. And you can't blame them for wanting to work in a clean, airy factory that wants for nothing besides the colorful pathos that blazing heat, smelters, and open blast furnaces guarantee; VW has no foundry here, receiving all its engines and body panels from other plants. Its paint shops are state of the art. So it feels like you're in the world's biggest Costco, only neater.

And how about that Passat? If you've been reading this magazine, you'll have been prepared for the worst, as we preemptively bemoaned the dumbing down of Volkswagen's great sporty family sedan as the company prepared yet again to conquer the American market from the inside. History buffs can't help but remember the last time VW attempted the same -- in the 1980s, with a comically schmaltzified Rabbit built at a plant in southwestern Pennsylvania. It did not go well. Yet as much as we today want to criticize Volkswagen for treating us Americans as a monolithic block of undiscerning fat asses who prefer cars that handle worse than their European counterparts -- I have to admit that VW may be on to something with the new Passat.

Not for driving enthusiasts, mind you, who will want to scratch this new VW -- even in its most appealing TDI version -- off their lists, but for the undiscerning fat asses who would otherwise buy Toyota Camrys, Nissan Altimas, Hyundai Sonatas, and the like. You know, worthy, practical, but fundamentally boring and anonymous cars.

If you forget everything you ever knew, or hoped and dreamed about for VW, and instead view the Passat as competing in the heart of the part of the market where the most metal is sold, if not the most car magazines, you are then forced to concede that the new Americanized Passat is a fine package. It rides well enough, handles acceptably, and, frankly, compared with its boring competition, it's bigger, better, and slightly less boring, especially with the diesel. The crappy plastics are even slightly less crappy.

So welcome back to the world where manufacturers desperately try to excise cost from their cars as they attempt to fool most of the people most of the time. If, as has been said, there's a race to the bottom going on, then I think VW is winning. Which, like poor Chattanooga, kind of stinks, but only part of the day.

Who better to pen this column than an Americanized strip-mall version of Jeremy Clarkson?
It is humorous that several automotive journalist have found problems with Chattanooga, the State of Tennessee, and VW's decision to build a plant in that location. I want to read about the new 2012 Passat when I read articles from Automobile, Car & Driver, & Road and Track. Instead, I am forced to read about Bar-b-que stands, sewers, and Lynchburg. If I wanted to read creative journalism laced with inaccurate and irrelevant details I will read The Enquirer. Please don't come back to Chattanooga, the city is a better place without you!
Seriously dude... quit bitching... this should be an article about the review - not your whining...
Wow! you said you were not prepared for the heat and humidity. Perhaps what you smelled was the heating of the NY Stench you brought with you. One of the nastiest places I have ever visited was the NY NJ area. It must make you feel better to belittle someone else with your elementary school mentality. But here again the drama is how you make your living. To anyone else reading... come visit we have a great city with tons of things to do outside from hiking, climbing to whitewater rafting and hang gliding. Weekly free concerts outside and the awesome Riverbend festival in June. Do your own research and don't take all your advise from this hater!!My southern hospitality goes only so far, and you sir, as far as I'm concerned, are not welcome back.
Oh and I might add, pls would someone check the IP addresses of all the above whiney postings, I suspect they all come from the same Moms Basement...
Woo woo! All aboard dah Scattanooga Poo-poo!Srsly in addition to the downside of smelling like doodie, apparently other reasons not to travel to Chattanooga include an 80% population of certified whiners, and similar proportions of those medically proven "unable to take a joke", and "unable to define the word irony or discern self referential sarcasm in written text"
A yes, what about that new Passat? If you hadn't spent the whole article bitching, we might know something about it! Listen Princess, if Chattanooga isn't akin to your New York utopia, get your frilly satin panties back there quickly! And stay out!!
At least we know we have a problem, New Yorkers think their shit doesn't stink!
Come on. Have you ever been to NYC in August?I work a block from the Doubletree you stayed at and I can assure you it smells better here than in the City 98 percent of the time.Concentrate on cars, dude.
It doesn't help that the hotel you stayed at is only 2 blocks from a chicken processing plant. I used to work within eyesight of the Chattanoogan and smelt it daily in the summer but not so much the rest of the year.
I do not see bashing a community that you are not a part of on a daily basis is acceptable. I have lived in the Chattanooga area for the greater part of my life and have not experienced any smells that differ from any larger cities I have visited in either the US or when living in Europe. In fact it is full of friendly people and much cleaner city than others. Keep to what you're hired to do and have won awards for: CAR REVIEWS.
How very sad for you that you are so miserable in your life. How even sadder that you have to take it out on the rest of the world. I sincerely hope that you get help for this and soon. I will pray for you that you will find happiness in your life. No one should be so unhappy and miserable as you seem to be. It is so very apparent in your writing. Instead of finding the positive in your experience you try to make everyone who reads your review as miserable as you are. The next time that you don't want to do an assignment at your job please don't take it. Maybe you need to find another job? Good luck with your life and may you find happiness soon.
thanks for the trashing of my city. I think you should have written more about the car you were reviewing,than trashing where I live. All I can tell you is you certainly don't do your job well as a car reviewer but you are excellent at trashing a place you do not call home. If you don't like the south, then don't come. Oh, buy the way it is very hot and humid in the summer. Everyone knows that. You should do your homework before you enter a region in the summer. No wonder I never wanted to go to New York. I heard its full of rude people, you just fulfilled that.
Wow I guess he forgot this is a CAR review... did a car magazine REALLY spend their money for him to write a long review on a city? haha love the few lines of actual car review. Maybe they should ask for their money back and send him to the travel magazine, or maybe him and his editor should find new travel jobs. As far as Chattanooga make sure you report all of your facts correctly. I worked in the TVA building for 6 years right beside the Chattanoogan. the only time there is any issue is when it has not rained and it is a heat wave(that you forgot to mention the rest of the country is in too). Also as stated in a previous post it is only a few blocks not in the entire downtown area. You really do suck as a journalist you only tell half of the story or well in a car review no car review at all... maybe its time for a new profession?
And all said and done you can keep your comments and nasty ass in new york, and thats lower cased letters on purpose, and remain pissed because VW DID spend Eight, yes Eight Billion dollars in Chattanoga!! and that stinks to you im sure!!
We may know there is a problem...that we don't have money to fix... But we're not telling people not to go to NYC cause it smells,people are rude,rats,crime,cost,etc,etc,remember the pen is mighter than the sword and this guy just poked us in the eye with his pen for what? to sell magizines....He's a turd himself that smells no better than the sewers of nyc or chattanooga!
What you failed to mention, in your haste to write a "cutesy" column putting down some nice place in the South that you automatically hate because you are a hoity-toity New Yorker, is that the odor you smelled is confined to just two or three blocks in an area outside the beautiful main downtown/riverfront area of Chattanooga. The rest of the city -- about 99.9 percent -- doesn't have the odor. But you, my friend (not), stink even worse.
Oh you folks that live in areas with already known problems always b___h when some outsider brings it to the attention of the rest of the planet ... yet you have known about such problems and done nothing to fix it?sorry someone brings up the obvious ...
While a New Yorker talking about smell is certainly "the pot calling the kettle black", this only points to a marketing and media truism: bad news travels much faster and is read with greater fascination than good news.Chattanooga has done a lot of things right. Among them are cleaning up its 1970's industrial air pollution, rebuilding and developing its water front, building a beautiful river walk, and most recently, building a world-class fiber optic network to deliver crystal clear television to the home and the fastest internet speeds in the country.Yet all of this can easily be disparaged by the olfactory nerve of a visiting journalist who happens to have a couple of awards for his work hanging on the wall in his office.Chattanooga will work to correct this problem, but in the meantime VW, we suggest you put sensitive urbanites like these up in the plethora of hotel rooms closer to your plant in the Hamilton Place area were the infrastructure is newer and the warm summertime air less offensive.
You prick! you visit our city tell people not to come here over a smell and NYC smells like looks and feels like shit daily. keep your ass up there and dont come back! you could have asked does it smell like this all the time? (NO) thanks for the visit but hope you head your own advise and stay away!
Y'all come back now ya hear! Don't let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya though!
What a miserable existence you must have as a human being. Good luck waiting for the world to revolve around you!

New Car Research

Find vehicle reviews, photos & pricing

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price


new cars

Read Related Articles