The way my life has been going lately, I’m seriously considering selecting a random TTAC reader to be the executor of my modest estate and then taking a shot at BASE-jumping off the Petronas Towers. If that reader happens to be you, then I need you to do at least this one thing. Have Wal-Mart or whomever the lowest bidder happens to be engrave the following on my headstone: “He saw passive aggression and, wherever possible, met it with actual aggression.”
I’m old enough to remember when women were passive-aggressive and men were just plain mean, instead of the other way ’round. I liked it better. The other night I was at dinner and my date asked for coffee and the swishy waiter pouted, “We can do it, if you want to wait fifteen minutes.” I’d rather he said, “Go to hell. We don’t serve coffee here.” I could respect that.
Even in 2016, however, it’s rare for an entire company to be passive-aggressive. But that’s exactly what Volkswagen is doing: threatening to abandon the mass market in the United States, presumably because its current exposure to lawsuits and government penalties is too high and its showroom traffic isn’t exactly at Beetles-in-the-Summer-Of-Love levels. I don’t know what it thinks such a move would accomplish, but I do know what the proper response is to a girlfriend, or colleague, who tries that approach: You hold the door open for them and let it hit them in the ass on the way out.
Let me, as the man said, make one thing perfectly clear: I’m a Volkswagen guy. From Fox to Golf to Passat to Phaeton(s), I’ve never hesitated to walk into the dealer and put my money where my fahrvergnügen was. I think VW makes some truly brilliant cars, most notably the current GTI.
That doesn’t mean that I can turn a blind eye to VW’s continued and uninterrupted reign of incompetent terror in this country since the beginning of the water-cooled era. For the last 40 years, Volkswagen has viewed its American customers with open contempt and it’s never hesitated to make us aware of that fact. The thousand injuries of Wolfsburg I have borne as I best could: from poky square-headlight Westmoreland GTIs to the eight-valve, quad-lamp Mk2 “GTI”, to the interiors of the Tennessee Passat — the list goes on.
To be an American VW fan is to resign one’s self to the certain knowledge that the good stuff is never going to come your way. Once a decade or so the company will grudgingly let a few Corrado VR6es or something like that onto a Jersey-bound boat, but in general the American showrooms have been Plato’s cave writ large in banal yellow-and-stainless-steel decor, showing us vague shadows of European product and expecting us to pay top dollar for the privilege of taking the cast-offs.
In my youth, I didn’t find the above-discussed practices so offensive because they were pretty much standard operating procedure for every European and Japanese automaker. The 1985 GTI was a bad joke, but so was the BMW 528e. The Fox cost almost half again what a Tercel did, but at that same time the 560SEL cost half again what an LS400 did. We never saw the really nifty high-performance Volkswagens, but Toyota kept its good stuff at home as well. It was just the way of the world.
Then everything changed. In the ’90s, Americans started getting the real deal in our showrooms, from the MkIV Supra to a full-strength E46 M3. AMG brought its full line to the United States, more or less. You could buy an Integra Type R if you were smart enough to pull the trigger on one.
I could have bought an Integra Type R at the time, but I bought a B5 Passat instead. The Piech-led VW renaissance promised to finally equalize the United States and the fatherland. For a brief moment it looked like it might really happen. You could buy stick-shift turbo Passat wagons and the R32 and the Phaeton W12. The long national nightmare in which American VW fans had to look longingly over our fences at everybody from Germany to Brazil seemed to be at an end.
There was just one little problem: the product wasn’t really any good. The B5 Passat was a much better car to drive than the equivalent Accord, but it sure didn’t last like an Accord or even a Malibu. The MkIV compact Volkswagens were business-school case studies in the unintended consequences of cost-cutting. The Phaeton was undermined by sullen dealers, ridiculous option packaging, and marketing that seemed designed to ensure that nobody heard of the car except as a punchline.
After absolutely brutalizing its most loyal customers with quality problems and cliff-face depreciation for the first decade of the millennium, VW finally decided to do something about it. That “something” was to make a big deal about creating cheaper cars for the ignorant hicks in “Murica.” We got super-sized Passats and Mexi-Jettas. I want to take a moment to focus on VW’s attitude here, which I can sum up in this imaginary dialogue:
VW Customer: Well, I’ve owned five Volkswagens and they’ve all spent a lot of time in the shop.
VW: Our cars are too expensive and high-quality for the American market.
VW Customer: I’m not too sure about that, because they don’t seem to hold up like Corollas do…
VW: We made special cheap cars for you.
VW Customer: I don’t think the problem was that the cars weren’t cheaply made enough.
VW: Yes it was.
VW Customer: Really, it wasn’t.
VW: Well, here’s our new lineup of cost-cutter sedans. Take it or leave it.
VW Customer: Is there anything you still bring here that’s properly German and built like you give a damn?
VW: Perhaps we can interest you in a TDI Sportwagen.
That conversation, in one form or another, has been occurring since 1975. The American Volkswagen customer asks for high-quality products and demonstrates willingness to pay a little extra, and VW treats him like a toothless yokel. This worked fine back when the only affordable German-branded car bore the Wolfsburg crest, but today you can lease a 3 Series or a C-Class for what it would cost you to risk a five-year loan on a GLI or Passat. Why buy a generic-label BMW when you can get the real thing for the same money?
Of course, the ultimate expression of VW’s contempt for the American market was this TDI boondoggle. The company’s going to pay dearly for that contempt. You can’t thumb your nose at Uncle Sam nowadays and expect to survive. Ask Vicki Weaver. And VW’s proposed solution to the problems its arrogance caused is more of the same. They’ll retreat upmarket? To where, exactly? The BMW 228i kicks the ass of any sporting VW in history. It’s $32,100 and the VIN begins with “W”. Is VW going to charge $35,000 for a Mexican GLI?
If VW thinks that people will pay a premium for mystery-meat MQB variants when they can go across the street and buy the best C-Class in history for $40,000, they’re kidding themselves. If VW thinks that its brand has enough mojo left to go upscale, they’re smoking more weed than Snoop Dogg. There’s nothing in the hopper, not even the MQB Passat, that would justify Lexus money.
It would be better for the company to just close up shop in the United States. Sell the remaining inventory, tear up the dealer agreements, and admit on the public global stage that they can’t cut it here, the same way that Peugeot, Renault, and British Leyland did. Take out one final ad in the WSJ: “We abused your trust and your goodwill and we’re sorry. Goodbye.” Audi can offer an expanded A3 range to pick up the scraps of brand loyalty left behind and the dealers can go to hell. Most of them were a disgrace anyway.
And who’d miss VW? Almost nobody. It would suck to not have the GTI around but really in the hot-hatch segment it was primus inter pares at best. I’m not stupid enough to buy a third Phaeton. Thrifty can get its mid-sized sedans from Hyundai like everybody else.
There’s an alternative, of course. The blueprint for succeeding in the American car market is far from a secret. We all know what it is, because we all watched Honda and Toyota do it. Build cars with cast-iron reliability and sell them dirt cheap until the public realizes how good they are, at which point you can raise the price. I don’t know how many of you will remember that an Accord used to cost less than a Chevrolet Citation, but such was indeed the case.
It’s a tough path. It requires massive talent, unwavering commitment, and deep pockets. It doesn’t happen overnight. The American public’s perception of vehicle quality trails the current reality by about 10 years, give or take. That’s 10 years of building truly great cars and selling them cheap. Ten years in the desert. Well, the Israelites had it worse.
I don’t reckon that the arrogant and unpleasant men who head Volkswagen would be capable of such self-abasing effort. Given the choice between working their asses off to have a viable presence in this market and abandoning America by degrees, they’ll likely choose the latter. They’ll say that it doesn’t matter. They have Germany, they have Europe, and they have all their little protected markets where people still buy brand-new 1982 Quantums at full price. Who needs America?
Well, we all know the answer to that. This is the world heavyweight championship of auto markets. It’s the place where Lexus was born and where Hyundai has risen to prominence. If you can’t make it here, it’s just a matter of time before you can’t make it anywhere. It’s a shame that Max Hoffmann isn’t around to explain it to the VW executive team, but don’t you worry; eventually, they’ll get the message.