We joined a roundtable with Ulrich Hackenberg, member of the board of management for Volkswagen AG, responsible for product development during the Detroit auto show this week. Hackenberg says that localization is the most important thing to VW's continued growth in the U.S. That means the volume engines we get here, including the new 1.4-liter turbo that will debut in the Jetta Hybrid, will be built in North America. A surprise admission is that the next-generation Golf, which uses the new MQB platform, will be built in Mexico -- and that the new Chattanooga plant can also build MQB cars. That means there is potential for the next Scirocco and even things like the Bulli to come stateside.
The Future of the VR6
Right now, the VR6 engine's future is in limbo. It is not as simple of whether or not it will continue on naturally aspirated or gain turbocharging, as it depends on the tax limit on displacement. According to Hackenberg, VW has places in which there is a need for more power than can be provided by a four-cylinder, but have yet to decide if the VR6 will carry on or will get replaced by a turbocharged five-cylinder to fill that slot. Currently, the only remaining place that the VR6 resides in our market is under the hood of the CC. If Volkswagen can manage to build the VR6 or its replacement within the U.S. or the North American Free Trade Agreement zone (U.S., Canada, Mexico), the U.S. market will get it. Otherwise, the fate of the VR6 lies only with the possibility of a low-volume, premium application with a high enough price tag to allow the VR6 to be built in Germany and shipped here.
A Midengine VW?
Hackenberg says that Volkswagen will have a mid-engine prototype car this year. The U.S. market would be important for the car, since its main competition is the Mazda MX-5 and most of that car's volume is in the U.S. However, despite being liked by the media, these cars would need bigger sales numbers to make it happen. No word on whether or not the new concept will be an evolution of the BlueSport roadster from a few years ago.
One of the largest issues for a mid-engine car is that VW sales people wanted a more American car. Hackenberg says they were pushed to do it, the result of which was the Jetta. "We made it different than it was. And it was successful. We have to less it; we can't just make cars from the hearts of the engineers." Before venturing into niche segments, Volkswagen has to do its homework and get the bread-and-butter cars selling in big numbers.
Does that mean we can expect more hybrids from VW?
Volkswagen has the diesel market cornered in the U.S. -- according to Hackenberg, 75 percent of all diesel passenger cars sold are VWs. He goes on, "but there are still customers who prefer a hybrid, depending on the area. We have to offer the technologies which are asked for by customers. They're asking for a hybrid. That's why we do it."
First up is the turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline I-4 in the Jetta Hybrid with the electric motor doing what the supercharge did on the twincharger engine. The 1.4T is not related to the EA888 (2.0T) engine, but from a smaller family of engines that tops out at 1.4 liters and a turbocharger.
Expect to see more electrics, too
Up! production and e-Golf will both be on the market next year, and driveability is really good, according to Hackenberg. Even with a limited capacity and range of the batteries limited to 120 to 150 miles, he can see it as a second car for people or a car for the city. The next step is a plug-in hybrid, which VW is developing on the Golf chassis. That car will have an 85 kW electric motor and will be similar to the EV but with the combustion engine from the Jetta Hybrid and have an all-electric range of about 30-35 miles. However, the Golf isn't the right car for this powertrain; it's more likely that we'll see a Jetta plug-in hybrid here.
No Polo for the U.S.
The Polo is being brought to market in China, but VW has held off on doing so in the U.S. While they are prepared to build those cars in the U.S., all of the parts need to be localized and the sales business case still needs to be made. Right now, the first priority is to get the new Jetta and Passat fully ramped up. The subcompact market will catch up, but it has a lot to do with gas prices at this point. To Hackenberg, everything below the Jetta and the Golf is cheap, and VW isn't going to give the Polo away; instead, they will wait for the right moment to introduce the model in the U.S. He says that Volkswagen is "well prepared with the product" and can act very quickly.
The importance in getting the Polo right and to continue profitability is localization. (Hackenberg explained that the profitability was thanks to the Passat and the fact that it's all made locally.) To help with that, VW's next modular platform -- the MQB -- will be built in Mexico. It's completely flexible and can fit under vehicles from Polo to Passat, though the upcoming 2013 Audi A3 will be the first car in production to ride on MQB. The Passat's plant in Chattanooga, Tennesse has the potential to produce MQB cars, despite the fact that the current car rides on PQ35, thanks to how the tooling has been set up. It's thanks to this that we could see the next-generation Scirocco on U.S. shores -- Hackenberg says that car will ride on MQB, and could, therefore, be easier to certify for the North American market.