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Where Does the Americanization of Volkswagen Stop?

These are scary times for the Volkswagen loyalist. To reach the highly ambitious goal of 800,000 annual American sales by 2018, U.S.-specific products are a must—and the brand’s European character appears to be at risk. I can’t help but feel uneasy about the future when the present is defined by the clumsiness of the Routan, the disappointment of the new Jetta (though we haven’t driven the GLI), and the uncertainty of the Passat. Those recent Americanized VWs point to a future where the product brief reads “larger, cheaper, and as visually uninteresting as possible.”

At jeopardy is Volkswagen’s unique position as the only affordable, full-line European manufacturer. Even amidst a tide of all-new competitors, the Golf hatchback (and its GTI progeny) is an absolute standout in the compact class for its surprisingly upscale interior, exceptional chassis refinement, and energetic powertrain. Sure, the company can still claim a strong European connection with the U.S.-specific cars, a point they’ll play up with phrases like “German engineering, made in America.” But what’s the value of German engineering when the cars disappear into the vehicular homogeny of American and Japanese autos? I expect more than German engineering in a Volkswagen. I want German thinking, German practicality, German quality, German styling, and, most of all, German driving dynamics.

At a recent media event for the new Passat, Volkswagen of America president and CEO Jonathan Browning and Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, the Volkswagen Brand board member responsible for research and development, spoke to how the future lineup might look, indicating where else we might see Volkswagens carefully crafted for our market.

Count on an exceptional portion of the burden to be foisted on the slow-selling Tiguan, as Browning told us, “The Tiguan for America could be what the Golf is for Europe.” But in 2010, 481,361 sales stood between making that analogy a reality: Europeans bought more than a half million Golfs; less than 21,000 Americans purchased Tiguans. (In all, European vehicle sales totaled 13.7 million in Europe versus 11.6 million in the U.S.) A facelifted Tiguan arrives for the 2012 model year, but it will take a much more concerted effort to boost sales to meaningful numbers. Currently, the Tiguan accounts for just 1.7 percent of sales in the compact crossover segment. In a separate conversation, Hackenberg confirmed that a U.S.-tuned Tiguan is probable for the future.

The Touareg, while sold globally, is as American as it gets with the current lineup. Expect that to change in the next couple years, though, when VW introduces a three-row crossover to satiate our ever-changing tastes. It will be larger but cheaper than the Touareg.

The modern  Beetle has always been a car for Americans, but Volkswagen hopes to widen its appeal with the next-generation model set to be unveiled at this month’s New York auto show.  We’re told the new car will be more masculine and sportier. For one, it ditches the bud vase.

In order to protect the Eos, we won’t receive the Golf Cabriolet. And the folks at Volkswagen seem content with the meager Routan minivan sales, their only justification for its existence being that, “The buyers don’t know that it’s built by Chrysler.” Is that really so great? Chrysler sells seven minivans for every one Routan that leaves a dealer lot, not to mention that the updated 2011 Chrysler minivans are far better in every measure than the Volkswagen version. The Routan is less poised, spectacularly underwhelming inside, and more expensive.

One of the few bright spots: Since the Passat moves more toward mainstream, middle-of-the-road motoring, the CC should retain its sporty, European flair. And what about the beloved Golf? Would Volkswagen Americanize that too? Hackenberg, a native of Germany, speaks slowly, softly, and without emotion, but his repetition validates how seriously he dismisses such a notion. “I could not see it for the Golf. The Golf is the Golf. It will be the Golf.”

Phew. At least they haven’t completely lost their minds.

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