Success, Winston Churchill once observed, is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. By that measure, Volkswagen is as successful as they come.
For one thing, the automaker has the enthusiasm angle nailed down tight. And not without reason: VW really is successful. Already Europe's largest manufacturer, the pride of Wolfsburg recently overtook Ford to become the world's third-biggest carmaker. That's quite an achievement for a family-run firm that once led the field in building air-cooled, rear-engine curiosities.
Of course, present-day market position is not always the best predictor of future success. You could ask General Motors. Or you could simply recall England's BMC. At one time the world's third-largest car seller, its remains are scattered today in Germany, India, China, on the side of the road, and in heaven.
Most felicitously for its shareholders (dominated by the self-directed Piëch and Porsche clans), the market currently values Volkswagen more highly than any other car company. Proclaiming that it will sell ten million cars worldwide each year and an incredibly ambitious one million cars annually in the United States by 2018 (2007 sales: 328,068), the Volkswagen Group is nothing if not enthusiastic. It is also supremely and, to my mind, inexplicably confident for an outfit that just foisted the Routan minivan upon us Americans.
Actually, while it continues to show all the promise in the world, VW seems to have a host of problems here in the U.S. that ought to give it pause. Although the new Golf looks all right and the Up! concept cars are très magnifique, style has been downgraded. The lines of the current Passat and Jetta have lost the characterful distinctiveness of their immediate predecessors and look eerily like late-model Toyotas, vehicles hardly deserving of tribute, which has hurt sales. The Eos is less handsome than a Renault Alliance.
Similarly, it's difficult to see how the Mercedes-Benz CLS-style CC four-door coupe is going to change the game. Yet VW has predicted it will sell some 160,000 CCs a year in the United States. This is, I fear, dangerously insane, more so since the economy hit the dumpster. And the strong hint from VW executives that they'll start engineering dumbed-down, cheaper-to-build cars for America is also ominous. That's not change we need. But for now, it's the Routan that most colorfully marks VW's wrong-way run into its own end zone.