When our five-year-old daughters tell us they plan on growing up to be the president of the United States, we smile. When teenaged children tell us as much, we begin worrying. And when full-sized grown-ups reveal deep-seated presidential ambition, it's generally time to contact psychiatric services. There's a fine line between reaching for the stars and megalomania, but overt declarations of one's burning desire to be the absolute top dog, the capo di tutti poochie, are not merely vulgar; they tend to constitute prima facie evidence of kookulent goings on upstairs.
Now, we didn't need any further proof that Volkswagen supremo Ferdinand Piech is one power-crazed hombr?, but a recent series of bold statements by the company that it will and must become the world's largest car maker leave us wondering again how high is nuts.
To be sure, VW could become the planet's new No. 1 -- they're no dummies -- they sell a lot of cars already and they've got some pretty fine hardware when they choose to use it. It's not like Saab or Daihatsu saying it's going all out for the top slot. Still, you really might begin by wondering whether the plot lines of the world's last two Number One's -- Toyota and GM -- oughtn't give VW a moment's pause, or at least encourage it, where its ambitions of world domination are concerned, to keep its proverbial pie holes shut. The fight to remain the world's largest -- with the non-stop headaches this entails -- didn't do these two behemoths any favors.
Not that GM and Ford, before them, didn't make hay out of being the largest in the world. (Poor Toyota seems to have never gotten the chance to really enjoy the honorific.) So let's put away the deeper meaning -- and potential self-defeating futility dimension -- and grant VW that its end is worthwhile. Let's consider instead the specific goals Volkswagen has outlined for America as a crucial part of its march to the mountaintop; namely, how it proposes to sell more cars than it's ever sold here in 2018 by tripling current U.S. sales to 800,000 units a year. Only then does it emerge that the means outlined may be more insane than the end itself.
Annual VW sales, which rose to more than a half a million cars in the U.S. in the 1970's, fell below 100,000 units in the 1990's, with indifferent quality and lack of focus nearly running the brand out of the country. A modern sales renaissance began with the 1998 Passat and 1999 Jetta. Though they had cheaper competitors, both cars presented as being significantly more car than you expected, thanks to interiors that in the quality of their materials and design comprehensively out-smoked all American and Asian entrants and even embarrassed luxury European brands like Mercedes. In an ill-fated attempt to sell more cars by selling cars more cheaply, Daimler marketing maestros had aggressively tweezed costs from Mercedes --and it was in the interiors where the world noticed it most.
Why then, we wonder, is Volkswagen cribbing that act now, attempting to grow American sales by making its cars cheaper to build and purchase? Doesn't it realize people will notice?
The current Passat, introduced in 2006, despite being bigger and cheaper than the car it replaced, sold only 12,500 units in 2010, down more than 80 percent from the nameplate's modern highs. Strangely, however, even a sales collapse of Force 5 magnitude hasn't persuaded VW to do anything other than cling tighter to the discredited cost-cutting strategy, which rendered the Passat practically unsalable.
The new Jetta for 2011, for instance, sports VW's antediluvian 2.0-liter base engine and a special-for-America rear suspension, so retrograde and crude it instantly had the bloggers and VW heads up in arms. At the Detroit auto show, a Jetta's rear seatback looked like it was made out of a dry cleaner's cardboard. Hardly what you'd want to see in a German-designed car that once stood for interior swankiness; it was a depressing preview of what the ride down market looks like. At the nearby Hyundai stand, value for money -- with interior quality that surpassed expectations -- made us wonder if we hadn't stumbled into the presence of actual future sales greatness.
Back at the VW display, meanwhile, a new Passat, to be built in VW's new plant in Chattanooga, debuted. Undoubtedly larger than the outgoing Passat, and cheaper too, it's not the Passat the rest of the world will buy. Rather it's a less special one: dumbed-down, de-contented, and bloated for a more American taste. VW ran a plant in America once before -- in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania -- where they assembled cost-cut "Americanized" Rabbits. It did not go well, closing in 1988. And yet now they're doing the dumb-down thing again. Leading us to wonder, how dumb do they think we Americans are?
Answer: Pretty dumb. Rounding out its sales plans, VW has announced its intention to offer as many as six different, new SUVs to American consumers in coming years. (Ignoring the perhaps excessively hopeful expectation that SUV interest will not grow unabatedly in the future.) VW must know that some of the SUV genus' most outspoken opponents are indeed traditional VW fans -- students of efficiency, nimble road behavior, and easy parking, all of who tend not to be part of the SUV skill set. This world view is a key part of the traditional VW buyer's psychographic profile. Why must VW turn on its heritage this way?
In closing, we put it to you, Dr. Piech, do you really suppose that the path to selling 800,000 cars here begins with taking the 257,000 customers you drew last year and insulting them and everything they stand for? It will take a constitutional amendment, to be sure, but instead of becoming the New No.1, your chances might be better running for president of the United States.