Guest Commentary: Tale of Two Car Brands: Subaru and Volkswagen

David Kiley

When an automotive journalist buys a new car, a lot of questions follow. What did you get? Why? How much? Really?

So, here goes. I take delivery on a 2014 Subaru Impreza. Not the WRX. Just the 2.0. And as I park it next to the 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI, I can’t help but ponder these two products, brands, companies, and their outlooks in the U.S.

Why the Subaru? The combination of all-wheel drive and good fuel economy is unmatched. Resale, reliability, and safety ratings—superb. Highway fuel economy is rated 36 mpg, and that is about what I will average on the highway with the Jetta throughout the year but without the premium paid for diesel. All-wheel drive seems like a good idea, since Southeast Michigan winters now seem to be rivaling those of northern Norway for relentlessness.

This is my fourth Subaru, and only the used one I bought ever disappointed. Lesson learned. Never be the third owner of a car. Subaru is best known for its all-wheel drive, but I have also found the cars to be beautifully rugged and sturdy, and they don’t cost a fortune to fix when off warranty.

While I hate to admit that advertising might affect me or my buying decision, Subaru has been on a roll, in part, I believe, because of a rare focus on keeping its communication with customers and prospects as simple as its product line.

One recent ad that’s gone fairly viral features dogs driving a Subaru. It doesn’t tell you much about the car, but it sure makes a dog lover smile. That’s good for Subaru, because it has about the highest percentage of dog owners in its customer base in the industry. The slogan reads, “Confidence in Motion.” But it also slips the word “love” into each ad.

Subaru has long made its product line logical and focused: Legacy, Outback, Forester, Impreza/WRX. Flanking them now are the Crosstrek and the BRZ. Yes, the Tribeca was a fiasco. That SUV, we hear, will be replaced by a variation of the new three-row Toyota Highlander as part of the co-development agreement between the two companies, but parent company Fuji Heavy Industries is not confirming it.

The numbers: Subaru sold 424,683 vehicles in 2013, its fifth annual sales record in a row and a 12% sales gain. The company sees 500,000 sales by the end of 2015.

Now, let’s look at my Impreza’s driveway mate. VW is the top-selling diesel brand in the United States, with 96,000 sold last year. It markets nine product lines but has no legitimate compact crossover. The Tiguan was not designed for the U.S., and the company is losing out on one of the most important segments in the business.

VW’s numbers and issues? Its sales were down 6.9% last year to 407, 704 (less than Subaru’s). That is a long way from the preposterous 800,000 sales the company often projects as its goal to hit by 2018. In comparison with Subaru, Volkswagen is a company that lacks focus. The mid-size Passat-based CUV is still a couple of years away. VW sells the CC here but has no legit compact crossover. And yet, the automaker blows an estimated $1 billion on Bugatti?

If Volkswagen wants to succeed and be profitable in the United States, it needs to have more focus. Does VW really need to continue to blow money on Bugatti and Lamborghini? Stop talking about sales targets by 2018. Just stop. Instead, focus the organization on quality ratings and resale values. Cut models that aren’t adding to the enterprise in a meaningful way, i.e. the CC and the Beetle. Concentrate on making the Jetta, the Passat and the forthcoming compact crossover hardcore competitors to Honda’s Civic, Accord, and CR-V and, now, Subaru’s Impreza, Legacy, and Outback. Anything that distracts from that goal will only hurt, not help, Volkswagen.

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If you are getting avg. 36mpg w/your Jetta "wagen" then there is something wrong with it or the driver. Even with leadfoot driving it ours gets a worst ever 44 and 50-52 mpg is not uncommon. This is actual per tankful fillups not what is reported by the car (which is only slightly off). This in hill country, highway, byway, parkway, back roads and about a third city driving, cold, snowy winters and hot summers driving.
That 36mpg you are counting on you will most likely not see.  You will see 30-32 at best with mostly highway driving(This is according to two co-workers who own a 2013 and 2014 impreza(s)).  With 2 years in and 50,000 miles on the odometer I have not got under 43mpg per tank in my Jetta TDI with 60%highway/40%city driving.  I plan on keeping the car 10 years which the diesel should easily cover when properly maintained.  I will make back my investment even though diesel is 15% more where I live.  I put on a set of snow tires here in the rust belt and have had no issues.  VW's can have their quality issues but so can Subaru's (CV joints/wheel bearings).  Hopefully you will not have those issues.. 
I kinda want to call the writer out on some of his suggestions for VWs product focus.  Yes they need to improve their quality ratings if not their warranty and they need something to compete with the CRVs and the newly shrunken Rav4s of the world, but they also need something to compete with the Fit and Yaris, same with Subaru.  Up anyone?  
I do not think losing the nostalgia model is not the way to go, they just need to do something to make it more special than it is, however.  Right now people look at it, then a similar priced  and equipped Golf, and realize the Golf is way more practical with the available 4 doors and the squared off cargo hold.  It's bad enough competing with other brands,  but competing with something so similar in the showroom from the same brand can not be good.  Maybe if the Beetle were shrunk to compete with the Fiat 500 and Mini and offered only as a hybrid with turbo 3cyl that gets 55mpg while still being as fun to drive as a mini and priced similar to a Mini hardtop and  it would have a better shot at luring people to the brand interested in more than the nostalgia, the same way as the original bug brought people to the brand.  And even if the Up were brought over or they made an american version here, my dream of a new beetle would, while being similar in size would not really compete because the hybrid gear would price it closer to where it is now while leaving vw a much lower entry point for US buyers than what we have now, something necessary with the slow economic recovery, and if it is done right and reliable you have new people who are already brand loyal in a few years when they decide it is time to upgrade.  It is cheaper to keep a customer than it is to earn a new one.
I also think the Touoreg  should stay in the line up, because the Q5 is too small and the Q7 is too big for someone who wants to compete with the mclass and x5 with a cheaper luxury 2 row suv, while the larger 3 row crossover can not come soon enough, especially if it is only a hybrid or diesel form because lets face it, the real world numbers in the pathfinder hybrid suck as does it's cvt, so we need an alternative to it.  The CC, though similar in price to an A4/5 is VWs flagship sedan, sadly though maybe it needs to grow like the passat did to compete with the Azera and Avalon while keeping the 4door coupe look, at least for our market, just make it drive more like an Audi than an Avalon and start it under 30k.

Basically, I call this "journalist" out. The Jetta is a better car than the Impreza. Easily. Maybe not better than the Mazda 3, but much better than the impreza ( unless you must have 4WD). 
VW is an incredibly successful car company - their sales anywhere but the USA are the envy of all other car makers.  So , please , you can criticize how they are implementing their global domination plan in the USA, but it is laughable to criticize VAG as a global company.
VW and quality, they just don't seem to care.

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