Volkswagen's North American Boss Wants a Brand That's so American, It Hurts

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

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]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on Mar 13, 2018

    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.

    • Magnusmaster Magnusmaster on Mar 14, 2018

      The SUV VW will bring instead of the T-Roc is going to be heavily based on the Skoda Karoq.

  • Threeer Threeer on Mar 13, 2018

    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...

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...