Volkswagen Group: Europe’s Largest Manufacturer – Noise, Vibration, and Harshness

Success, Winston Churchill once observed, is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. By that measure, Volkswagen is as successful as they come.

For one thing, the automaker has the enthusiasm angle nailed down tight. And not without reason: VW really is successful. Already Europe’s largest manufacturer, the pride of Wolfsburg recently overtook Ford to become the world’s third-biggest carmaker. That’s quite an achievement for a family-run firm that once led the field in building air-cooled, rear-engine curiosities.

Of course, present-day market position is not always the best predictor of future success. You could ask General Motors. Or you could simply recall England’s BMC. At one time the world’s third-largest car seller, its remains are scattered today in Germany, India, China, on the side of the road, and in heaven.

Most felicitously for its shareholders (dominated by the self-directed Piëch and Porsche clans), the market currently values Volkswagen more highly than any other car company. Proclaiming that it will sell ten million cars worldwide each year and an incredibly ambitious one million cars annually in the United States by 2018 (2007 sales: 328,068), the Volkswagen Group is nothing if not enthusiastic. It is also supremely and, to my mind, inexplicably confident for an outfit that just foisted the Routan minivan upon us Americans.

Actually, while it continues to show all the promise in the world, VW seems to have a host of problems here in the U.S. that ought to give it pause. Although the new Golf looks all right and the Up! concept cars are très magnifique, style has been downgraded. The lines of the current Passat and Jetta have lost the characterful distinctiveness of their immediate predecessors and look eerily like late-model Toyotas, vehicles hardly deserving of tribute, which has hurt sales. The Eos is less handsome than a Renault Alliance.

Similarly, it’s difficult to see how the Mercedes-Benz CLS-style CC four-door coupe is going to change the game. Yet VW has predicted it will sell some 160,000 CCs a year in the United States. This is, I fear, dangerously insane, more so since the economy hit the dumpster. And the strong hint from VW executives that they’ll start engineering dumbed-down, cheaper-to-build cars for America is also ominous. That’s not change we need. But for now, it’s the Routan that most colorfully marks VW’s wrong-way run into its own end zone.

A Chrysler Town & Country by any other name, tepidly Teutonicized by Tier 1 suppliers directed from a remote German location to make it slightly less Mopar Mom inside and more Piëch Plan, the Volkswagen Routan (shouldn’t they call it the Stadt & Land?) strikes me as the sorriest example of brand abuse foisted on the American public by a credible manufacturer in a long time. One of those gifts that keeps on giving, it’s a relic of former DaimlerChrysler wonder boy Wolfgang Bernhard’s synergistic high-speed pit stop in VW’s executive boardroom. This epic stinker of a brainstorm requires today’s Volkswagen executives to clench their teeth and smile as Bernhard’s baby passes some awkward years in their house, until what can only be hoped will be an early crib death.

No one’s buying cars these days, so the damage that the Routan does to the Volkswagen brand ought to be limited. At least it would be if VW weren’t trying so hard to make it otherwise, with a painful series of television advertisements for the minivan starring former child star and all-purpose celebutante Brooke Shields. Despite Shields’s post-ironic charge, the ads miss the intended hipster bull’s-eye by a frightening margin, making the Routan two failures-product and marketing-in one captain’s-chair-filled disappointment.

Rendering the embarrassment extra acute is the fact that Shields’s Routan ads are set into the cringeworthy context of the current Volkswagen advertising campaign, meaning some spots also star “Max,” a talking 1964 Beetle with a cheesy German accent. In them, Shields kvetches that people are getting pregnant just so they can buy Routans, Max splutters, and the level of absurdist irony is so high that it becomes the emotional equivalent of a tone inaudible to human hearing, understood only by dogs and perhaps the wacky few who’ll buy a Routan to get a Chrysler with a decent interior.

If nothing else, that Routan interior, with its upgraded materials and crisper plastics, reminds us that Chrysler ought to have built its minivan nicer for its own customers in the first place. But any good the upscaled interior does in the Routan is fully canceled, in my estimation, by VW’s utter desertion of its brand values and by an advertising strategy that defies explanation. Shields, who revealed her own deep postpartum depression in a high-profile editorial riposte to Scientologist Tom Cruise’s attack on psychiatry, makes an unexpected spokesperson.

“In fact,” Shields wrote in the New York Times in 2005, “I prematurely stopped taking [antidepressant Paxil] and had a relapse that almost led me to drive my car into a wall with Rowan in the backseat.”

Which leaves me to stand back in awe, taking in this Madison Avenue car crash from a safe distance, mumbling the eternal question, “What were they thinking?” Maybe there’s something about the target Routan buyer we don’t know.

On the glorious other hand, there is the Jetta TDI, which comes a lot closer to pointing the way forward for Volkswagen. I was reminded of the sort of technology that makes eminence possible for VW during a recent media event in Santa Monica, California. A few hundred paces from the Pacific, a line of new Jetta turbo-diesels stood ready for journalists to drive up the coast.

Out now, these cars-EPA rated at 41 mpg on the highway but capable of 45 mpg or more in the right hands-are legitimate freedom fighters in the war to achieve superior fuel economy without forcing one to completely disown his or her inner Rubens Barrichello. The Jetta handles well, and with 236 lb-ft of torque and 140 hp, the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder diesel with common-rail injection supplies strong acceleration, reaching 60 mph in eight seconds with pleasing amounts of in-gear thrust while also meeting California emission standards.

Unfortunately, owing to manufacturing capacity limitations and the likely fact that VW doesn’t make money on them, Jetta TDIs are going to be in short supply for some time on these shores, with fewer than 15,000 allocated for the next year. It doesn’t bode well for VW’s million-unit sales goal, because the way ahead for VW is surely going to be more about high-mileage compact sedans for which you are willing to pay a premium rather than overweight minivans.

Big companies get to make a lot of mistakes before the roof starts caving in. Fortunately, 2018 is a long way away. There’s a market for all sensibly sized transportation now that high gas prices have woken up many Americans. If VW loses the typically German, monolithic view of Americans as uncaring boobs with a taste for the large and brings us more models, including a subcompact, a real minivan of its own design, as well as their large and small vans, the new Scirocco, a mid-engine sports car, hybrid diesels, electric cars, and everything in between, it could hit the million-vehicle sales target.

But VW must move now, with enthusiasm.