By on March 12, 2018

2018 Volkswagen Atlas/Tiguan - Image: VW

Reading the long-from retrospective of Hinrich Woebcken’s life in Automotive News, this author can’t help but think of a friend who, like Volkswagen of America’s CEO, spent his early life in Rochester, New York. In the executive’s case, it was an exchange program in the late Seventies.

This friend, after odd jobs accumulated a sufficient stockpile of cash, went out and bought his first car — a white Volkswagen Fox, which I believe he later rolled (with limited damage). The choice of buying a Fox wasn’t unusual, even in a market awash in cheap Detroit iron. Foxes were small, economical, presumably better built than the domestic competition, and above all else, affordable.

It’s the latter virtue Woebken wants to return to the VW fold, as paying extra for “German engineering” isn’t nearly as popular as it once was.

After taking the helm at VW of America in early 2016, Woebcken’s battle with head office ultimately led to the creation of a new North American region with greater autonomy in decision-making. As he tells it, things came to a head over the name of an upcoming SUV.

The name VW’s German HQ originally picked for the American-market Atlas didn’t roll off the tongue. U.S. dealers despised the name “Teramont,” which you’ll find stamped on versions of the three-row midsizer sold overseas. If locals find a name confusing, they’ll just make up a new way of pronouncing it — a hard and fast rule Woebcken learned as a teen in Rochester. (For fun, ask a Frenchman about the proper pronunciation of “Gratiot Avenue.”)

“It was another German name that started with a ‘T’ and then caused the tongue to trip over the rest,” he explained. Top brass relented, and the Atlas was born.

Besides guiding the brand’s crossover-centric product strategy in North America, Woebcken continues in his quest to return the brand to its American roots. Meaning, affordable product that doesn’t demand extra cash from the consumer just because some engineers in Wolfsburg, Germany had their hands all over it.

In the mid-2000s, products like the fifth-generation Jetta and sixth-generation Passat put on airs; it often felt like VW was trying to sell itself as a low-rent premium automaker. This strategy didn’t do anything for sales. (It’s little wonder the Canadian market held over the previous generation Golf and Jetta as value alternatives).

Woebcken’s desire to return to the Seventies is increasingly reflected in the brand’s U.S. lineup. Already, we’ve seen the new 2019 Jetta emerge with a lower entry price than its predecessor. Earlier this year, VW slashed prices on the redesigned Tiguan — despite the fact that Tiguan sales have never been higher. Both Tiguan and Atlas, each a three-row vehicle, can soon be had in a stripped-down two-row form. As well, the overseas T-Roc, a compact crossover once thought bound for America, won’t arrive on these shores. We’re told there’s a separate model in the works that’s designed to appeal specifically to North American buyers. In other words, larger, boxier, cheaper, and undoubtedly more popular. (Hey, maybe VW will surprise us with a style extravaganza. Prove us wrong, VW.)

Key to keeping costs down is seeking a better deal with suppliers. Woebcken claims he’s doing everything possible to source locally, hoping for lower product prices and greater profit.

So far, it seems VW’s pricing and product strategy is paying off. After falling continuously since 2012, U.S. sales grew 5.2 percent in 2017. Over the first two months of 2018, sales are 5.6 percent higher than the same period last year.

[Image: Volkswagen]

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50 Comments on “Volkswagen’s North American Boss Wants a Brand That’s so American, It Hurts...”


  • avatar
    PartsUnknown

    Ok fine, so where does the hoity-toity Arteon fit into this plan?

  • avatar
    thornmark

    I’m waiting for the Phaeton.

    Because VW marketing hasn’t made sense since the 1960’s.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    The ‘larger’ part is what bugs me. We don’t need ‘bigger’, we need ‘economical’. Not just a lower price but one that’s also more economical to operate. Bigger is not economical.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I always liked the VW Fox. I want to get one for my boyfriend, but he’s 6’6″. Don’t know if he’d fit. Then again, he said he once had a 1979 Honda Civic CVCC, so maybe a Fox coupe would be okay.

    Any insights? I tried to ask Jack, but received no response.

    • 0 avatar
      thornmark

      Audi.

      It was an Audi. Despite what it says above.

      VW had the Dasher.

      • 0 avatar
        bufguy

        The Fox from the 70’s was an AUDI, a car VW quickly facelifted to make the Dasher, VW’s first front wheel drive car. It had a longitudinal engine and shared the chassis and engine with the the Audi.
        The later VW Fox was introduced to the US in 1987 and was a Brazilian made version of the VW Gol. Still a longitudinal front wheel drive car smaller and cheaper than the VW Golf at the time. I owned a 1993 Fox, 1.8 liter SOHC 85 hp with a five speed manual…no automatic available

        • 0 avatar
          dukeisduke

          First there was the Audi Fox (I owned a ’78 Fox), then later the Brazilian-built Volkswagen Fox. Both used a longitudinally mounted SOHC four.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Yes, the rebadged Gol is the one I’m talking about, not the older Audi.

          I already found an authentic “Gol” badge for it on eBay. LOL

          “No automatic available”.
          Yep and I love the car that much more for it.

    • 0 avatar
      Advance_92

      My parents looked at one but it was shockingly primitive and a B12 Sentra 87-90 was, despite its own tinniness, a much better choice.

      If you must have a Fox, find a wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      I purchased a Fox wagon new for my ex-wife in ’89. As someone said above, it was definitely a basic vehicle – crank windows, no power steering (but not hard to steer without it), rubber floor covering. It was plenty large inside despite the looks from the outside and had good seat travel for adjustment to differently sized drivers. It was bullet proof and neither she nor two of my sons who sequentially inherited it could kill it up through 200k miles. It was obviously built for driving in tougher areas than the US (made in Brazil and sold there as a Gol). The only issue I remember was the start injector would fail open and flood the engine occasionally after about four years of use, a problem easily rectified by plugging it off – the CIS-E injection system didn’t care and it ran just fine without it even in 0deg temps of Ohio.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        Believe it or not, he prefers a more basic car. He says my Taurus is too fancy LOL.

        Thanks for the info. I may find a deal on something else, but as I said, I always has a thing for the Gol (Fox).

      • 0 avatar
        jthorner

        “I purchased a Fox wagon new for my ex-wife in ’89.”

        Hmmm, any correlation between those two facts :) ?

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Decontenting worked before, they should try it again. Build a Jetta with manual steering, roll-up windows, and AM radio, they’ll sell like hot cakes.

    • 0 avatar
      TW5

      I’d buy one.

      If I ran the world, onerous taxes would be levied on all power-assisted controls. Nothing has done more harm to the art of driving and to the environment than power-assist.

      Throttle-by-wire might escape justice along with electric ignition, but manufacturing an automatic slush box, CVT or paddle shift gearbox would be a capital offense. Auto-rev matching manuals would carry a minimum sentence of 5 years.

      Road fatalities would probably skyrocket, but you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette.

  • avatar
    Dilrod

    “Gratiot Avenue”. I lived in Gratiot, Wisconsin for a couple of years. The way we pronounced it rhymed with Ratsh*t.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    The problem I see with this plan is that a race to the bottom in terms of content and price did not work well for Detroit automakers in the decade leading to bankruptcy. Most people actually want “upmarket” they just don’t want to pay for it. The price is only half the equation, you have to have the car with appealing styling, build quality and features to go with a “reasonable-ish” price.

    VW, not traditionally known on these shores for producing high quality vehicles, will kneecap itself if it is cutting corners, decontenting, etc to reach a price or monthly payment.

    I don’t know what a winning formula for VW is in a country that cant seem to buy enough Japanese branded cars/crossovers, US Built pickups and SUVs, and high end Euro badges with snob appeal. What is a bargain brand from Germany have to offer any of those 3 demographics that make up the vast majority of the US Auto industry aside from pollution scandals and eccentric vehicles with questionable reliability and quality. Dropping the price and bulking up isn’t going to propel sales to sky high levels.

    • 0 avatar
      Sobro

      I think the winning formula is going back to a simpler time when you could order a car with roll up windows AND air conditioning or a sunroof AND a manual transmission in the color you choose.

      I know, not going to happen, but a man can dream.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        @Sobro – kinda sounds like the 1995 Jetta that my sister-in-law had. Drove it into the ground. It was new when her daughter was born and that same daughter drove it off to college. So bone simple there was little to break.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      thegamper, the US marketplace is telling the Volkswagen that it wants Audi plus the GTI. German luxury cars plus a unique fun car.

    • 0 avatar
      TW5

      VW doesn’t really have a decontenting problem. When they rolled out MQB, they went out of their way to tell the public they’d never see a penny in savings. Instead, VW would add lots of electronic and infotainment content.

      That’s like telling Americans they are about to buy a car that never passes inspection because it has a wide array of dash lights that never shut off.

      VW can barely make turn indicators that don’t fault. They don’t need lane assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, etc. If they offer these systems on a particular trim, VW should be legally required to obtain the buyer’s signature on a buyer-beware-contract with a skull and bones watermark.

  • avatar
    probert

    The idea that German engineering is somehow superior to that of the vast majority of car makers is absurd. If VW can’t make competitive cars, it’s because their manufacturing processes are deficient. They should do what Porsche did and call on Toyota to show them how to manufacture a reliable car in the modern world.

    That their sales are up this year, belies the fact that they were caught last year in a vast criminal conspiracy – might have caused a dent in sales. So “doing something right”might come down to their current executives not being under indictment, and/or serving prison time. Kudos

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    The “German Engineered” bit must’ve worked for VW, like crazy. I heard a VW radio commercial and it was repeated three times in a 30 second spot. This was maybe 8 or 10 years ago but I thought, god some people are dumb.

    • 0 avatar
      tombalas

      I shopped for a VW Jetta in 1990, and the number of times the young salesman said “German” was just ridiculous. It’s as if his entire sales training was limited to that. While Germans are good engineers their cars are not as durable as they once were. American cars last longer and require far less maintenance. By that metric, my preference is towards American engineering. Sorry VW – customers aren’t that gullible.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      My favorite was when they used it in Routon advertisements.

    • 0 avatar
      onyxtape

      I heard about “quality German engineering” ad nauseum the other day. This time, it was from an otherwise well-informed STEM grad student. He believed that his ML350 will not break for 200k miles and is much safer than any other brands from other countries of origin (we didn’t even get into the manufacturing country of origin thing).

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    German auto executives are woefully blind to the obvious. Their engineering is overwrought and complicated resulting in very costly maintenance and repair costs, several times more than Japanese and American counterparts. Carcomplaints.com gave the 2011 Jetta its Beware of the Clunker seal of disapproval. Never own one out of warranty. An exit strategy is essential.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I knew guys who’d brag about their little VW diesel cars that were next to indestructible and getting insane MPG. VW needs to go that route.

  • avatar
    gtem

    I seriously considered and test drove a base Jetta 2.0 back in 2012 when I was compact shopping. 5spd with the old 8 valve 2.0L motor. Local no-haggle dealer had them going for $15k new, same as a new automatic Corolla LE on their same lot, and same price as the 1 year old used ’12 Civic LX 5spd Sedan I ultimately ended up buying. The Jetta held the road well and was very comfortable and roomy, but that old 8 valve mill was just way past its prime. When a Corolla with a 4spd auto feels sprightlier climbing hills, you know you have a problem. Introducing the 1.4TSI motor solved the acceleration problem in a BIG way, although if long term durability is the priority I suspect the agrarian old 2.Slow wins out.

    This whole approach sounds like nothing new, Their big push in 2012 was the same thing (bigger, cheaper, Americanized Passat made in USA). I’ve sung their praises here before, but I really quite like these Passats, in refreshed 1.8TSI (now 2.0TSI) form. A ton of features like adaptive cruise and heated seats and sunroof at the mainstream SE trim that they blow out the door for a very good price. With the big interior and austere German styling inside and out, and very solid highway legs, it feels more premium/special than most other midsizers that I’ve driven. Quite frankly LEAGUES ahead of the direct injected 2018 Camry that I recently had. Wow talk about a regression on that Toyota, yeesh.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    “Volkswagen’s North American Boss Wants a Brand That’s so American, It Hurts”

    If they’re aiming for General Motors in the late 1970s, they’re pretty close.

    • 0 avatar
      darex

      In that case, they should be selling their pick-up truck here, because it doesn’t get more “American” than that, and yet, they don’t. They’re full of it.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I recall renting two Jettas, one the high-content generation and then the follow-on lower-content. The cars were like night and day, the older car felt like an Audi, the newer car like a Cobalt. I have no idea how VW sells any cars in North America – expensive to maintain, sketchy reliability, I guess “German engineering” Kool-Aid tastes good.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “I have no idea how VW sells any cars in North America”

      Because GTI is worth it, and is unique in the market.

      Other than that, I have no answer for you.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Here’s the thing: this approach is nothing new, and began in earnest with the current Passat.

    The diesel disaster is what set them back.

  • avatar
    incautious

    all well and good until you take you out of warranted VW in for service and get a bill that makes you think that you were in a Ferrari dealer.

  • avatar
    TW5

    VW needs to focus on fundamentals. Their cars are still relatively unreliable. Parts and service are both still a pain. They aren’t leveraging their core competencies. Value for money has improved so they can cross that off of their list. Here’s the plan they should follow:

    1. Focus on reliability. VW’s are still somewhat notorious for powertrain problems and electrical gremlins. This is unacceptable, particularly if parts are not dirt cheap and readily available from sea to shining sea.

    2. Preserve Farhvergnügen. It doesn’t need to be the backbone of every trim. In fact, comfort should be the default, but make sure every model has a Fahrvergnügen trim. This means keep manuals around in every model.

    3. Revamp CUV lineup. It makes no sense. Perhaps the best value in the CUV market is the Tiguan Limited, which offers a 2.0T and AWD for under $25K. It also makes 20/24mpg. Really? Worse than Atlas? The 1.4T won’t fit in the Tiguan Limited? Whatever, ditch the Toureg and get the fuel economy ratings and powertrains sorted.

    4. Dilute the GTI brand. One of your most recognizable products cannot be a performance hatchback. If there aren’t trademark issues, use the GTI brand on other models. Jetta GTI, Passat GTI, not just Golf GTI. This ties into Fahrvergügen.

    5. Do not kill the Beetle. It is one of the most recognized nameplates on earth. Make it the people’s hybrid.

    6. Refocus on Carefree Maintenance and expand the program. Perhaps they can no longer roll it into the MSRP, but they need to take it seriously, and make dealer mandatory. Also expand coverage to include other routine maintenance like brake pads, tires, etc. Carefree Maintenance has, until recently, been a differentiating point for the brand. Yes, it’s technically stupid for buyers to finance Carefree Maintenance, but it’s even more stupid for a brand with a reliability problem and lackadaisical American customers to eliminate one of the few contact points for owners and service professionals. Carefree Maintenance has positive externalities.

    7. Attack Subaru. The boxer engine is a weakness. It’s expensive and it takes up a lot of room in the engine bay. VW is probably the only manufacturer that can offer a comparable AWD system and inline turbocharged engines in a wagon. The Alltrack needs to be beefed up. Put 4-Motion on all CUVs.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      Perhaps VW should emulate Subaru and go back to the boxer engine, a design that they used for 40 years and, in fact, still do in Porsche automobiles of the present day. They were highly successful with that engine for a long time, arguably more so in the US market than the last 40 years with in-lines and narrow-V’s.

      • 0 avatar
        TW5

        VW can return to boxer engines, when air-cooling comes back into fashion. They will have the market cornered.

      • 0 avatar
        jthorner

        The boxer really is a poor engineering decision. Subaru keeps it just to be stubborn, and has the long term durability issues to prove it. Two heads, two exhaust manifolds and so on make it much more expensive to build than the same capacity inline-4, and even worse to turbocharge.

        Porsche owners will pay anything to be special, and are happy to pony up for high long term cost of ownership.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          “Subaru keeps it just to be stubborn”

          I’m pretty sure it’s a key ingredient in their “special sauce” of low center of mass and drivetrain arrangement, but okay.

          They’ve made rock solid 300k+ motors before, namely the smaller displacement EJ series (EJ22), the earlier EJ20T WRX motors have no head gasket issues and last well into 200k+ mile territory if kept stock and not abused to within an inch of their life.

          I think it’s more of an issue of cost cutting that it seems all of the Japanese went through starting somewhere in the mid-late 90s, and continuing through the 2000s.

          I’m actually hopeful that now that the FB series had that oil burning issue sorted (low tnesion oil rings that frankly everyone from Toyota to Volvo struggled with), they’ll be solid motors.

          • 0 avatar
            TW5

            It’s not that flat engines can’t be reliable, it’s that they have inherent challenges. Perhaps the most notable of the challenges is the effect of gravity pulling the engine oil to the bottom of the cylinder. This phenomenon varies upon oil type, temperature, age/use of the oil.

            The issue has been more or less solved, but the slightest miscalculations can lead to major engine problems, as seen in the 996. It’s worth it for Porsche to stay with the boxer layout because it’s a performance car. Pairing a boxer engine with a wagon on stilts is questionable.

        • 0 avatar
          bullnuke

          Yeah, Rotax, Lycoming, and Continental use “a poor engineering decision” in their engines and should stop building/supplying such irrational technology to the aviation industry. Subaru should engineer a V-engine like most other manufacturers that has only one head and manifold set and jam it into the engine bay sideways. What the heck is Subaru thinking?

      • 0 avatar
        dantes_inferno

        >Perhaps VW should emulate Subaru and go back to the boxer engine,

        Boxer engines have two glaring flaws which have yet to be engineered out of existence:

        1) Penchant for consuming head gaskets at a higher frequency than their in-line and v-engined competitors.

        2) Mediocre to average fuel efficiency compared to their competitors.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    I never understood why we should pay extra for “German Engineering” by way of “Mexican Manufacturing”.

    VW originally made a splash in the US by being cheap and cheerful, not by being “the slightly cheaper BMW”. That is Audi’s job.

  • avatar
    Hydromatic

    So basically, VW needs to sell the sort of stuff in the U.S. that it sells in the Brazilian market? Because that’s the vibe I’m feeling. Seeing a frill-less $12.5k Jetta that’s toughened up for rough road duty would be interesting.

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    If only VW had a range of cars and SUVs that were:
    – reliable – if only because they mostly use tried and tested tech rather than cutting edge – something that can take abuse from European taxi drivers
    – value for money
    – conservatively styled

    Hmmm…. (looks round, pretends not to see Skoda putting their hand up excitedly)

    Seriously though, even if it was too much effort to introduce the brand, VW are good at badge engineering – VW Passat LWB became a Skoda, Skoda Rapid became a SEAT, Audi A4 became a SEAT, a Skoda Felicia pickup became a VW Caddy.
    Wouldn’t take much to badge the Superb and the Kodiak as VW models for the US market (though they might hold off and see about local production if the Trump Tax is to take affect)
    A rebadged Rapid or Octavia would make a good US market modern day Fox.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Seriously like both the Skoda Rapid (in five-door form) and the Fabia (both the hatch and combi variants), but I’m exactly 0.0001% of the buying public in America that would consider buying a (manual tran, no less) version of either model. They appeal to me in their conservative styling and uncluttered features…but I’m the guy that really was sad when my son’s 1997 Toyota Tercel bit the dust a few weeks ago, as I was pushing to get it back from him. Something about that kind of simplicity speaks to me.

    Not sure what the answer for VW is, other than “CUV.” And that is also a little sad…

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