VW of America's CEO on EVs, Sedans, and the "Cool as Hell" Next GTI

We catch up with Scott Keogh as Volkswagen begins its big push into electrification.

Scott Keogh is no stranger to the Volkswagen Group. As the former president of Audi of America, Keogh oversaw the expansion of a marque that has since become a force in the U.S. luxury-car market. In November of 2018, Keogh assumed the big chair as the head of the Volkswagen Group in the U.S., overseeing the American operations of Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, and VW Credit Inc., as well as being the head of Volkswagen North America. It's a dual role with myriad challenges but also one that offers an opportunity to make a dramatic impact as VW begins its big move into electrification.

Automobile Magazine: How have you settled into your role?

Scott Keogh: I think in life sometimes we can get a little bit too comfortable. You don't know you're comfortable until you get uncomfortable. And this is one of those jobs, just in the amount of information and everything that you're absorbing as a manufacturer. That's against two more countries—Canada and Mexico—and obviously there is a much bigger assignment with Volkswagen across all the brands we do. I'm one of those people who are motivated by challenges, new inputs to sensors going off. I'm enjoying it, but it's a crazy job.

VW is going big into electric cars. How do you view the U.S. market prospects?

From my selfish point of view, if I look at Volkswagen in the U.S., we are underscaled, without a debate. In my mind, this is an opportunity to be one of the first to push aggressively into the volume side, and so actually I think in electric cars we can have scale versus many of our competitors. But then all the other basics are still going to need to be there. You're going to need to promote the car, market the car, and everything else. Risk? Absolutely. But I see a massive upside.

How are you going to get dealers ready and on board with the EV push?

We need to do two things. One: train, train, train. How do I get the charger installed in my house? Is this thing going to work at an electric charging station? Roughly what kind of range am I going to get? What's the total cost of ownership? These are things you need to train for. The second thing is to make the business case work for electric. As I've learned in 20-plus years of doing this, if you make a business case work for the dealer, an awful lot of things start to work from there.

How important do you think it is to have cars with character and style?

I think what ends up happening in this industry is everyone just says, "OK, there are lot of cars sold in that segment; it has this size and this feature, this thing." Everyone's got the same spreadsheets. I think it's fine that we can do things that everyone else does, but I think we can also run out fascinating things that no one else does, so I think these things are crucial. The ID Buzz, the van concept, is crucial, and I think we should look at some other things. So I think you're going to see us with some core products, and then you're going to have always three to four to five sort of emotional winners.

Obviously the GTI's been a big part of VW and enthusiasm for the marque. Where do you see that car going?

That's the heart and soul of our brand. One of the things I'm proud of actually is we did a great job with that Jetta [GLI] and basically matching it up to a GTI, the same drivetrain, the same brakes up front. Even if the volume is small, it's our most loyal people, our most enthusiastic people. We will be launching the Golf VIII, which will be the next-gen and it will have a GTI, so we're 100 percent on board [with that model]. But right now the GTI is going to stay GTI. And the [eighth-gen version of that] will come, and it's going to be as cool as hell.

The Arteon has taken a while to get to the U.S. How bullish are you on it and sedans in general?

The first thing, by the delay, we've never built up as much pre-excitement behind a car. It's completely unintentional, but this is going to be a new strategy. I'm jesting, but my thing on sedans is, if you look at what's happened, we're not naïve. Sedans were going down 10, 15 percent a year, but I think the decline has stabilized. And there's still four-plus million sedans on the road, so I think for our heritage and our history, we know there are still people who like to drive sedans. Yes, I know the market's smaller; yes, I know you need to be smart about it, but it doesn't mean I want to abandon the market. The [Arteon] volume is going to be lower than any other [VW] sedan, so I think we'll play the appropriate angle of it's basically a cool-as-hell, stylish car.

Do you ever see a backlash against SUVs?

I don't think it's going to go back to the straight-up three-box styles we had. I do think that whoever figures out that third wave is going to be incredibly successful. No debate, at some point someone's going to look at SUVs and say, "That's my dad's." There are so many out on the road; they're so out there and so normal that people are going to start looking for something else. You're starting to see it happen now when people are looking for sportback-y types of vehicles. Without a doubt, something will come out. Because once something gets too large, there's always going to be a generation that counters against it, whatever that counter is.

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