Volkswagen has met with doubt and derision for pursuing "strategy 2018." No one, not even VW chairman Ferdinand Piech, can simply mark a date on a calendar when the company might end up as the biggest automaker on earth, certainly not when so many competitors are fiercely fighting over every percentage point of market share. In that respect, at least, the naysayers are correct. Volkswagen is not on track to take the number one spot in 2018, but rather, in 2016 -- two years ahead of schedule.
Volkswagen certainly has the momentum and the war chest to turn its ambitious plans into reality. The company shrugged off the ongoing financial crisis in its European home market to sell 8.26 million vehicles in 2011, beating out Toyota for the number-two spot worldwide. More important, it recorded a $14.8 billion profit last year -- nearly twice the take of number-one General Motors.
It also has a game plan that differs substantially from that of any of its competitors. Unlike Toyota, purveyor of reliable but often-faceless transportation devices, the VW Group has put a strong emphasis on emotional values like driving pleasure, strong perceived quality, exciting design, and engineering excellence. Unlike Nissan/Infiniti/Renault, Volkswagen hasn't bet the farm on electric vehicles. Unlike GM, Ford, and Chrysler-Fiat, VW sees no need to seek out cooperation agreements -- after all, the group is now big enough all by itself. And unlike BMW and Mercedes, Volkswagen can tap the family's vast know-how, parts, and logistics reservoir to propel its luxury brand, Audi, to achieve even more substantial cost benefits.
Instead, the mid-term strategy hinges on four essential elements: further integration of the mainstream and premium brands (perhaps eventually in two separate entities); the creation of three highly flexible cost-saving architectures; a much more efficient global production network; and last but certainly not least, to use its massive profits to fuel a clever and aggressive model policy. Make that very aggressive. In the next five years, VW Group plans to introduce some 32 different models ranging from the next-generation Volkswagen Golf to the successor for the Lamborghini Aventador.
Given this engineering advantage and the onslaught of fresh product, can anything derail the VW Group's rise to the top? Of course. The first threat is VW's admirable but at times exasperating perfectionism and its tendency to ignore cost when a superior end product beckons (see: Volkswagen Phaeton and Bugatti Veyron Super Sport). Danger number two concerns the top management. The chiefs are getting older, and they are reluctant to name their successors. The company's traditional structures and long-established networks, though important to its success, can also make it inflexible.
Last but not least, no one really knows how Volkswagen will tick after the departure of Ferdinand Piech, who turned seventy-five this year. True, his wife is about to get a seat on the supervisory board, and Piech's shares are bundled in two Austrian trusts, but these moves don't change the fact that much like Apple thrived on the genius of Steve Jobs, the Volkswagen empire very much relies on the vision and determination of Ferdinand the Great. The best he can do is establish a watertight game plan for his legacy. If that formula happens to break up the kingdom into smaller, easier-to-rule pieces, so be it. After all, that's how the VW Group started its rise to greatness way back when.
The product offensiveNearly all of Volkswagen's future models will be developed from one of only three new modular architectures: MQB, for all FWD/AWD cars with transversely mounted engines (except the Up! which is a decontented mix of old and new elements); MLB, for all FWD/AWD models with longitudinally installed drivetrains; and MSB, for all RWD/AWD models with front-, mid- and rear-mounted engines. This system saves space, weight, assembly time, engineering work, complexity, and above all cost. The savings can be from just under 20 to well over 30 percent.
MQB – the bread and butterFWD/AWD, transverse-engine architecture
The majority of VW Group's volume models will sprout from MQB, starting first with the 2013 Audi A3 that debuted at this year's Geneva show; following the A3 this fall will be the all-new MkVII Volkswagen Golf. Both the A3 and the Golf will sprout numerous variants with a smattering of choices of door counts, body styles, and roofs. Since the majority of the models underpinned by the MQB will wear the VW badge, it comes as little surprise to anyone that Volkswagen's engineering team has the lead on platform development here. The planned models to spawn from MQB are listed here:
- MkVII Volkswagen Golf, debuting in October 2012 at the Paris Motor Show
- Three- and five-door hatchbacks on sale in Europe in December.
- High-performance GTI and GTD follow in spring 2013.
- Golf Variant (wagon) in July 2013.
- Golf Plus MPV, spring 2014.
- Touran MPV appears in June 2014.
- Golf CC (like the Passat CC), 2015.
- Golf Cabriolet, 2016.
- Second-generation Tiguan SUV is set for summer 2014, spawning two more versions:
- A long-wheelbase version, 2015.
- A "CC" coupe version (think BMW X6), 2016.
- A7-generation VW Jetta (which is essentially a Golf sedan) will come after the Golf in 2015
- VW Scirocco coupe
- The current car will receive a facelift in early 2013.
- An all-new sports coupe will replace the current Scirocco in 2016 and has the potential to make it to U.S. shores.
- New-generation VW Passat – 2014
- Sedan, wagon, and CC variants (though the CC could be U.S.-only).
- Potentially, a sleek two-door coupe.
- A convertible to replace the slow-selling Eos.
- Next-gen VW Polo subcompact
- Using MQB-AO components set that will include a real crossover (instead of the jacked-up CrossPolo) and possibly a mini-minivan.
- Audi A3, three-door already premiered in Geneva
- A new five-door A3 Sportback in late 2012.
- The very attractive and U.S.- and China-aimed A3 Sportlimosine due mid-2013
- Second-generation A3 convertible toward the tail end of next year.
- Third-generation Audi TT, due in early 2014
- Its launch has been delayed by six months because the new model did not push the envelope far enough, despite our previous reports of another trend-setting design. We can expect a more dramatic and even sportier design both for the coupe and the roadster variants.