COLUMNS: The Not-So-Sweet Smell Of Success

August 3, 2011
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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.
Chattanooga Passat Illustration
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.

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