Motor City Blogman: Bentley Falcons, RWD Alfas, and VW sales hurdles

Bentley’s über-luxury sport-utility vehicle might not be rational, but it was inevitable [see Georg Kacher’s in-depth report here]. Ponder the questions of whether Porsche would have developed the Cayenne -- or even the Panamera -- if the diverse Volkswagen Group already had fully owned the brand back in the days when there was only the 911 and Boxster. We now can be sure the answer is “yes.”

VW Group has more brands than General Motors in the Alfred Sloan heyday. Bugatti, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Porsche each have distinctive characteristics, but when Lambo and Bentley get their sport-utilities, they’ll share components with the Porsche Cayenne, the Audi Q7, and even the VW Touareg. The Bentley will have three rows of seats, so it will share its long wheelbase with the Q7.

The marketing philosophy is predictable. Bentley owners typically have multi-car garages full of various badges. They’re probably okay driving a decked-out Audi Q7 for daily duty while saving the more exotic models for special drives. But they’d be even happier with a big, cushy crossover with styling and a badge that best reflects the qualities of their favorite high-end brand.

Consider VW’s point-of-view. The tooling for Cadillac’s first-generation Chevy Tahoe-based Escalade was paid off in six months. Imagine the difference in margin between a highly profitable $65,000 Q7 and a Bentley Falcon that might have a few thousand dollars more in leather and wood and high-tech gadgetry but stickers for $200,000.

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Our man Kacher’s report on Sergio Marchionne’s plan to populate the entire Alfa Romeo lineup with rear-wheel-drive cars and crossovers beat an Automotive News story by a couple of days. While Kacher’s piece says the Alfas will share platforms with Maserati, AN’s story says the Alfas -- other than the ’14 4C and the Mazda Miata-based Spider, of course -- will rely on Chrysler’s RWD platform set.

This is not as contradictory as it looks. Chrysler’s LY platform has its roots in the Mercedes-Benz E-class, as you might know. A mid-cycle update is being readied for the 2015 model year, and for 2018, the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger get all-new RWD platforms.

So far, the Dodge Challenger is soldiering on with its original LX RWD platform. An SRT Barracuda on a shortened version of the platform -- all the better to suit a two-door hardtop muscle car’s proportions -- is expected in calendar 2015, and an Alfa RWD sedan off the same platform is scheduled for the third quarter of ’14. There has been much talk of a larger, BMW 5-series-size sport sedan off the long wheelbase RWD platform. I’d bet its wheelbase will be the same size as the wheelbase of the 2018 Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger, so the hard points might match the Mopar platform, even if chassis components come from the Maserati Ghibli. The new Ghibli sedan has a 118-inch wheelbase, longer than the Challenger’s 116 inches and shorter than the 300’s 120.2. There will be a good deal of common parts shared among Dodge, Chrysler, and Alfa Romeo, while Maserati also enjoys better economies of scale in buying RWD components as part of Fiat-Chrysler.

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When Derrick Kuzak abruptly retired last year as global product development chief at Ford Motor Company just before the 2013 Fusion went on sale, many of us were expecting Ford to replace him with Hau Thai-Tang, best known as chief engineer for the 2005 Mustang and as a former Special Vehicle Team director. Thai-Tang later spent four years in Brazil, where he was the region’s product development chief. However, Ford promoted Raj Nair to Kuzak’s job.

Ford recently announced that Thai-Tang is its new group vice president for global purchasing. It’s an unglamorous, though important, job as car company jobs go, and it’s one that reflects Thai-Tang’s experience as an engineer with an MBA. He’s clearly being readied for bigger things, requiring a background in both engineering and business, not unlike CEO Alan Mulally. No, Thai-Tang won’t replace Mulally, but when Mark Fields does, Ford will need a new president for the Americas region.

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Back at VW, Mark McNabb, Volkswagen of America’s COO, has downgraded the brand’s 2013 U.S. sales estimate from 486,000, to 440,000 vehicles. This means 1973 will remain VW of America’s third-best sales year. Its sales here peaked during the Beetle period, in 1970.

VW still has a long way to reach the 800,000-unit goal it has for U.S. sales by 2018, even as the Passat has become a viable competitor in the midsize field. So far, through most of ’13, Passat sales have been hovering around 10,000 units per month, a good number but not enough even to surpass Jetta sales. After the first half of ’13, VW Passat sales were 5192 units behind the Subaru Outback. Help in the form of a mid-size, three-row crossover is a long way off; it’s expected late next year as a 2015 model, nearly two years after VW unveiled the CrossBlue concept, wearing a lot of production hardware, at the ’13 Detroit auto show.

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