Porsche: The Maus That Roared
Porsche is my favorite automotive brand for one reason: they make my favorite sports car. They do not, however, make my favorite SUV. Infiniti's FX45 is more fun to drive, Land Rover's LR3 is more capable, their Range Rover is more luxurious and when it comes to carrying a crew, Lincoln's Blingigator is the bomb. Sure, the Cayenne Turbo is the world's fastest SUV. And? Aside from dubious relevance, I reckon the debut of the glacial V6 Cayenne cancels-out the accomplishment. But the worst thing about the Cayenne is that it's subsidized Porsche's plan to take over the Volkswagen Group.
This morning, Porsche AG announced it will raise its stake in the Volkswagen Group from five to 20 percent. So much for the Sultans of Stuttgart's claim that they were buying VW stock to ensure access to parts and platforms for future Porsche models. The real motivation behind Porsche's land grab is the same as it ever was: power. More specifically, Porsche's Machiavellian machinations are a real world version of one of those Jeffery Archer-style family sagas, involving genetics, greed and history. Just for fun, here's the plot line:
Ferdinand Porsche made his bones building the "people's car" for Adolph Hitler. As co-general manager of Volkswagen's Wolfsburg factory (along with a Nazi administrator), the Austrian engineer used his considerable design and manufacturing skills to build jeeps, tanks and other weaponry for the German war effort. After the war, the Allies stripped Herr Porsche of his power within Volkswagen (it might have had something to do with Ferdy's willingness to use slave labor). Aided by his son Ferry, financed by a royalty on the Beetle, Ferdinand founded the sports car company that bears his name. Fast forward fifty years…
Following a few decades of Porsche ups and downs and some maneuverings over at Vee Dub, Ferry Porsche's nephew Ferdinand Piech ascended to the Chairmanship of the Volkswagen Group's Board of Directors. And there he stayed, inflicting his autocratic style on the mammoth conglomerate, gathering car brands like a 5th Avenue matron collects Manolo Blahniks, watching VW's US market share swirl 'round the toilet. Two weeks ago, after 13 years on the Group's board (most of it as CEO), Piech finally agreed to step down. Not so coincidentally, his decision cleared the way for today's news: Porsche to assume two seats on the Volkswagen Group's board.
The effect of all this Dallas-style plotting on the Volkswagen Group is not my main concern. Piech's plans for world dominance– such as matching Mercedes model for model– hasn't exactly turned out as planned. (Phaeton anyone?) Now that slave labor isn't the done thing, I'm happy letting the free market determine the wisdom of a Porsche-controlled Volkswagen Group. But I am worried about the fate of the Porsche brand. What will happen to my preferred sports car provider as it becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in Volkswagen Group politics?
In fact, Porsche has already sacrificed its soul to its corporate ambitions. Lest we forget, the Cayenne was originally "sold" to skeptical Porsche-philes as a way for the company to fund development of future sports cars– a story which now has a very different ending. Indeed, if the Porsche family's hunger to reclaim Ferdy's legacy wasn't so strong, would the Cayenne have even been built? Given that Porsche's SUV was developed in close cooperation with Volkswagen, given that the same will apply to the forthcoming Panamera, it's clear that this Porsche – Volkswagen nexus is already heavily influencing the type and character of Porsche's products. Where will it stop?
Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti brands were once independent, high-end automakers. Setting aside questions about significant product overlap (an issue which has not troubled the Volkswagen Group since it began its buying binge), why wouldn't a Porsche-controlled Volkswagen simply add Porsche to their corporate portfolio? Members of the Porsche clan who own shares in the family firm would become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams– unless, of course, this has been their dream all along.
If Porsche loses its independence, the sports car lover's best interests would not be well served (a sentiment Porsche has been expressing for as long as I can remember). As part of the Volkswagen Group, any decision regarding Porsche's product development would have to be made in relation to the rest of the group's needs, within the context of the existing bureaucracy. In other words, Porsche's design, engineering and marketing choices would be controlled by, gulp, committees. What's worse, Porsche's current path away from highly-focused manufacturer of sports cars, towards performance-oriented multi-genre automaker, would surely accelerate.
I firmly believe that Porsche should make the world's best sports cars, and that's it. I find it incredibly sad that one of the few automakers that never lost its focus, has. As far as the enthusiast community is concerned, Porsche's incestuous relationship with the Volkswagen Group makes the Cayenne look even more like the beginning of the end. Again, still, I hope I'm wrong.
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