For reasons known only to them but probably not unrelated to the dominant swagger gene in the psychological DNA of German industrialists, Volkswagen boldly asserted a few years back that it would become the world’s No. 1 volume carmaker by 2018. The firm still has a fighting chance of achieving that goal, though it’s been made harder by the resurgence of Toyota following an unintended acceleration scandal and the resilience of General Motors in the face of numerous scandals of its own. Volkswagen has another problem, though, and it’s spelled A-M-E-R-I-C-A. The export market that loved the German company first and best has turned cold for VW, with sales falling each of the last two years; now hovering around the 400,000 per annum mark, they are less than half the way to a self-imposed target of 800,000 U.S. sales they’ll need to reach the world’s auto making summit.
Sales of their bread and butter models here – Jetta and Passat – are falling and even though the Wolfsburghers’ new, seventh series Golf bagged the North American Car of the Year award here at the Detroit show, sales expectations for it are modest. So, much of VW’s show has been devoted to explaining how they think they’re going to close the gap by 2018. The shorthand answer is SUVs and more SUVs.
Sure there’ll be redesigned Passats and Jettas, (not just “redesigned, but very redesigned” according to VW’s CEO for the U.S., Jonathan Horn, backhandedly acknowledging the current models lackluster design.) But Volkswagen’s big reveal in the Motor City was the Cross Coupe concept, a hefty five-seat SUV that’s meant to supplement the seven-seat SUV that they’ve already announced plans for, and a stretched Tiguan compact crossover due to arrive in 2017. They also plan to add 100 new dealers to the roughly 650 they already have, which number, incidentally, is according to Automotive News, already more than they’ve ever had and worrisome to some existing dealers, many of whom remain unprofitble. The company is also planning on shortening the life cycle of its models – from seven to five years. More and more, VW sound like an American company, which is not an accident.
Today’s Exhibit A is the Cross-Coupe SUV concept, which looks an awful lot like an American product, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, to be specific, with a little Ford Edge thrown in. It’ll undoubtedly benefit from VW’s excellent componentry, especially in the area of hybrid powertrains and fuel-efficient diesels. Despite its heft and power (355 horsepower with both gas and electric motors pitching in,) VW claim the gas/electric CrossCoupe ought to be good for 70 MPGe. One can hope, but with gas prices at historic lows and diesel fuel inexplicably still fairly high, it’s hard to see how this big and presumably expensive brute will significantly change the game.
Because VW are my hosts in Detroit, having flown me here and put me up, I feel it’s only fair to give them some advice for free: that’s enough SUVs. As part of the something for everyone model line that No. 1 car makers offer consumers, they’re missing one key element: ironically, it’s the unusually efficient, well-made small cars (even smaller than the Golf which gets bigger and bigger with every redesign) that made their name in the first place.