Volkswagen Eyes No. 1 Spot

Racing Ahead: VW’s Golf R will be an important part of the North American strategy.

Volkswagen Eyes No. 1 Spot
…By setting up a factory in the US.

Volkswagen sold two Type 1 Beetles in the US in 1949. By the ’60s, VW was the US’ most popular import, peaking at 569,696 units in calendar year 1970. It hasn’t matched that number since. After the Japanese invasion and the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania-built Rabbit ordeal, VW sales dipped to 49,533 in 1993. Rumours had Germany following the French and Italians and exiting the US market. Improved product and aggressive advertising saved it in the late ’90s and 2000s. VW’s 2010 sales of 256,830 units trails Subaru’s, though, while its global sales, including Audi and Skoda, totalled 7.1 million last year. Toyota sold 8.42 million; and General Motors, 8.39 million.

“Our goal is to make Volkswagen the number-one automaker by 2018, economically and ecologically,” VW Brand Development Director Ulrich Hackenberg said at the First Middle East Automotive Summit in Doha, Qatar. With vigorous new-car development and expansion plans that include selling the Up! concept-based cars in developing countries, few doubt VW can do it. Toyota, which passed General Motors in 2008, may not put up much of a fight. Still…800,000 Volkswagens in the US by 2018? That doesn’t count Audi, Bentley, or Lamborghini. With VW perennially struggling, shouldn’t it concentrate on Europe and the developing markets, where it has had much more success?

“I wouldn’t say it’s a tougher job,” Hackenberg says, “but it’s a necessary job. We need 800,000 [US] volume to become number one globally. That’s why we’re opening a US factory.”

Custom Made For The US
VW’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will start with the North American-specific ’12 Passat targeting Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. At 191.7 inches overall on a 110.4-inch wheelbase, it has best-in-class rear-seat legroom, a VWoA product planner says. It’s on a platform unique for the market and weighs 80 pounds less than the Euro Passat it replaces. The base engine is VW’s 170-horse, 2.5-litre inline five, with five-speed automatic. This large-economy model will start in the $20,000 range. “That’s a breakthrough price for the VW brand,” the planner adds.

While the 2012 Passat’s interior features nicer materials than the cost-reduced ’11 Jetta, it’s not quite the poor man’s Audi interior VW was known for in recent years. Optional engines are the 3.6-litre VR6 and the 2.0-litre turbodiesel four, both available with a six-speed automatic or six-speed dual sequential gearbox. VW expects the Passat diesel to achieve 43 mpg highway, for a 795-mile range. That’s 1 mpg better than the Jetta diesel. The diesel will add several thousand dollars to the Passat’s $20,000 base price, though. Figure on something closer to $28,000.

The automaker also touts a number of standard features for the US market that it says doesn’t interest the European market, such as keyless entry and dual climate control. You’ll be able to order wheels up to 18 inches in diameter and a Fender premium audio system. VW’s excellent 2.0-litre TSI gas direct-injection four is notably absent from the option sheet.

Old Is Still Gold
To build VW’s sales without alienating traditional customers, VWs new North American chief, Jonathan Browning, Vauxhall Chairman from 2006 to 2008, says lower-volume models like the Golf hatchback, GTI, Golf R, and the CC (Passat CC outside the US) will remain key to the North American strategy. Browning says he’d like to import the Golf-based Scirocco, once considered a threat to GTI sales. “It’s not a black-and-white. It’s a continuum,” says Browning of the US lineup dichotomy. “The previous focus may have been the more narrow focus of the enthusiast, a little bit toward the accessible range of the market. So it’s keeping the balance. But it will be an aggressive balance along the line.”

VW Brand Development Director Ulrich Hackenberg is planning to
flood the US market in a bid to be No. 1 globally.  The new Passat
and the new, larger Jetta are key to reaching the goal by 2018. 

The new Passat and the new, larger Jetta are key to reaching 800,000 US sales by 2018, Browning says. The Jetta, built for global sales in Mexico, has long been the best-selling Euro nameplate in the US. The GLI 2.0 TSI Jetta, which better fits in the enthusiast/ niche category, comes with an independent rear suspension and better dashboard materials than on the standard Jetta. VW plans to introduce a hybrid Jetta here within a year.

VW will show the second-gen New Beetle this spring and put it on sale in the fall. Hackenberg says it’s an important car for both the US and Europe, though here it never breached the 100,000-unit level.

How will VW do it? Unless it quickly develops a $30,000 Honda Pilot competitor off the new Passat’s platform, plus perhaps a new Microbus-style minivan to replace the Chrysler-based Routan—two models that, combined, could add more than 200,000 units to annual sales—the Passat and Jetta will have to become best-sellers in their segments with sales topping 300,000 per year each. Should total US sales volume not reach 17 million, the 200,000 range is more likely, competitive with Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, and Chevrolet Malibu. That’s about 400,000 for Jetta and Passat, just half the ’18 goal.

Hackenberg and Browning emphasise efforts to improve quality scores in the US, long a major problem for the brand. They say much of VW’s quality problems relate to design features that confuse and annoy Americans—an explanation (or excuse) several competitors also use. While they talk about biting into Toyota and Honda sales, they don’t mention Hyundai, which expects to sell 590,000 in the US this year, or Kia.

“German engineering still has a very good image in the US.” Hackenberg says. “It is our job, and the job of Mr Browning, to bring that to the customer.”

VW has tried competitive pricing with Japanese brands and “affordable German engineering” in its marketing before, though not both at the same time. A mix of big, low-priced German sedans for the American market, and more interesting cars like the GTI and CC, might work this time. Until it does though, we don’t envy Browning his task.


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