Volkswagen has an ambitious U.S. sales target of 800,000 units by 2018, essentially a tripling of 2010 numbers. While some industry observers are snickering, VW is taking many steps to turn that optimistic number into reality, including of course the recent introduction of a U.S.-built Passat, priced to compete against volume cars in the C/D segment.
The anticipated recovery of the market from the recession and the normal growth from population increase will certainly be major factors. But in a 2012 full-line introduction, VW showed how it’s broadening the price ranges and increasing performance and fuel economy of all key models to give them greater market coverage.
At a time when fuel economy gets much of the attention from others, VW already has that as part of its DNA and image, so bringing the Golf R to the U.S. demonstrates a commitment to performance too. The R, which will go on sale at the start of 2012, has the highest-output engine ever sold in the U.S. for the Jetta/Golf/Beetle lines—256 hp (191 kW) and 243 lb·ft (330 N·m). The new R uses a 2.0-L turbo four cylinder vs. the VR6 producing 250 hp (187 kW) and 236 lb·ft (321 N·m) in the previous performance model, the R-32. Golf R fuel economy is expected to be a respectable 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway.
The R, which will be sold in two- and four-door versions, has a performance-tuned suspension lowered 0.6-in (15 mm) vs. the GTI and a six-speed manual transmission—no automatic, not even the DSG (dual shift gearbox). 4Motion all-wheel-drive, based on the fourth-generation Haldex system, is standard. This all-electronic system is capable of up to virtually 100% torque transfer to the rear. Although a fifth-generation Haldex system is expected for next year, it’s apparently intended for another model.
The 2012 GLI, a Jetta performance sister to the Golf GTI, also was introduced, and it served to answer those who claimed VW was “decontenting” the sedan when it introduced a lower-priced Jetta ($16,495 for 2012), the company’s top-seller in the U.S.
VW called it a simple broadening, and pointed to the transaction price of the 2011 Jetta line, which is $20,657, just $46 lower than the sales of the previous model. With the GLI now available, and base priced at $23,495, the transaction price of the overall lineup will be measurably higher than the previous one, VW said.
The GLI is similar to the Golf GTI, with a 2.0-L four-cylinder turbo rated at 200 hp (149 kW) and 207 lb·ft (282 N·m), and also mated to VW’s six-speed DSG automatic. Like the GTI, the GLI has an independent rear suspension, vs. the torsion beam in the standard Jetta. The 2.5-L five-cylinder, rated at 170 hp (125 kW) and 177 lb·ft (241 N·m), remains the base engine in Jetta and Golf.
Although electric and hybrid vehicles are in the future VW product plan, the company is currently only offering a Touareg SUV hybrid. With competitors advertising 40 mpg models, VW has to do so too. It has a price-competitive alternative in the well-proved 2.0-L four-cylinder "Clean Diesel," which is rated at 140 hp (104 kW) and 236 lb·ft (321 N·m) and 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway in the Golf/Jetta/Beetle.
The Tiguan compact SUV, also powered by the 2.0-L four-culinder gasoline turbo, reportedly is slated for eventual U.S. production at a second line to be built at the new U.S. plant in Chattanooga, TN. The 2012 model gets a styling refresh and a 2-mpg improvement in EPA city and highway numbers on the front-drive version from changes to the six-speed automatic and an idle speed revision. The city improvement, from 20 to 22 mpg, is largely from engine retuning to reduce idle speed from 760 to 600 rpm and a drop in the 1-2 transmission shift point from 1200-1300 to 1000 rpm.
The highway number, boosted from 25 to 27 mpg, is primarily from changing fifth gear to an overdrive ratio, lowering the numerical overdrive ratio of sixth and decoupling the torque converter during coast conditions. Low-rolling-resistance tires, now used, also contribute.
VW recognizes it has a quality perception problem, reflected in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey, but believes other data shows continuous, significant improvement in reducing warranty costs since 2005.
One metric cited by Marc Trahan, Volkswagen Group of America Executive Vice President, Quality, is the percentage of owner visits to the car dealer for repair vs. routine maintenance. The industry average is 37% for repair, whereas VW ranks sixth, with only 31%, Trahan said. Another is the total quality study by Strategic Vision, which Trahan said last month showed Volkswagen as the highest-quality brand, a rating that covers the total ownership experience, from buying and owning to performance and driving. Three of its models—Golf, Jetta and Tiguan—led their categories (the survey has a total of 18).
“Warranty data is good for telling you where any electrical and mechanical problems are,” Trahan said, but he told AEI that VW realized it needed a more comprehensive approach to find the things that disappoint customers but don’t result in repair appointments. These are becoming increasing factors in the customer satisfaction equation, particularly with the J.D. Power survey.
VW is monitoring social media intently, both its own Facebook site and others, along with Twitter. “We want to know what people are saying about our cars,” Trahan said. “They don’t have to be talking about a mechanical problem. It might be that the climate control isn’t intuitive.”
The U.S. operation is now so important to the Wolfsburg headquarters that the Board of Management consistently participates in U.S.-based test quality evaluation drives, and headquarters personnel maintain continuous contact. If necessary to get costly changes, he said, the U.S. operation can immediately involve manufacturing, marketing, and engineering, and if quick results aren’t coming, get “escalation meetings” with VW board members for approval.
VW also is trying to more quickly define any issues that come up in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey and react as intensively as possible. “Under complaints about ease of operation was where we picked up comments about Bluetooth and the Tiguan and CC climate control panels,” Trahan observed.
The Bluetooth problem, which occurred when using the vehicle audio to execute a phone call, often resulted in very poor voice quality. Although VW changed suppliers of the module, the primary fix was a change to the software settings, which will be available to existing customers as a reflash. VW also changed the in-vehicle “phone book” access, so the motorist can simply say, “Call Joe Smith,” rather than go through a specific sequence of requests.
The Tiguan/CC climate control problem was simple to understand, Trahan said. People wanted a Max A/C position for the obvious nature of its meaning. There is none. They also didn’t like operation of the temperature dial, on which only the set temperature is visible, because it is backlit. New parts are being tooled for the 2013 model year, he added.
When a wind noise complaint arose on the Jetta, Volkswagen personnel reached the customer and ended up trailing him with a duplicate car to confirm what they were being told. The problem was traced to the shape of the joint at the outside mirror to its mount, and the tooling was changed to modify the joint, which changed the airflow, eliminating the noise.