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With first quarter sales down by 13%, it would serve Volkswagen well to take a fresh look at today's market and learn some of the lessons that other manufacturers have learned of late. Outside of a little honesty regarding diesel emissions, lesson number one should be to realize that US consumers are, for better or worse, a different breed than Europeans.
Years ago, I bought a Volkswagen Passat B6 as a practical choice for a family man who retained his preference for German engineering. However, my ownership of the Passat turned out to be more of a platonic relationship built on admiration, rather than a love affair. This is because, excluding some notable exceptions, Volkswagen tends to build great appliances while Audi tends to build great cars. Practical appliances do well in Europe - the land of sky high gas prices, narrow streets and 1.3 liter engines. But this isn't Europe.
I get that the Volkswagen Group made a deliberate decision to separate brands and models so consumers won't cross shop a Passat with its corporate stablemates, the Audi A4 and the farther up-market A6. But this obsession with preventing one brand from cannibalizing another brand has hobbled Volkswagen in the US, resulting in lackluster vehicles purposefully designed to attract less attention than its sexier, more expensive, corporate siblings.
Case in point, the low-volume CC was the car that the Passat should have always been. It had the same underpinnings of the regular Passat, but had significantly more design appeal. At the time of my Volkswagen purchase, I was coming off of an Audi A4 and needed a larger sedan for my growing family. I could not afford an Audi A6 so the next best thing was a Passat. But despite the B6 Passat's German-made personality, she had a rather ungainly mug - coming or going. Then I saw the CC and fell in love.
Unfortunately, Volkswagen Group narrowly defined the demographic that was allowed to buy a CC and it did not include in me. By this I mean that the original CC was strictly a 2 + 2 sedan with no ability to secure a child car seat or accommodate three passengers in the back. Volkswagen wanted to ensure that a CC sale would not cannibalize a Passat sale which they did not want to cannibalize an A4 or A6 sale. Had Volkswagen married the practicality of the Passat with the design of the CC from the beginning, essentially merging the two into one with the best of both, they would have had a long-term sales winner. True, they might have lost some A6 sales to its more affordable, down-market sister, but I tend to believe that those who want an A6 and can afford an A6 will buy an A6. It's a different class of car altogether. And for those who would choose the Volkswagen over the Audi, well, at least they stayed within the corporate family.
Fast forward to today and super-bland Americanized B8 Passat sales are down another 22% while, for the 63rd consecutive month, Audi has set another sales record. Ten years on and I realize that these experiences helped break my loyalty to the Volkswagen Group, which is another reason (of many) that I now drive a Lexus GS 350.
Once free from an overly-reserved mindset that prevented Volkswagen from building exciting products for the US market, lest they steal thunder from Audi, Volkswagen could finally build some great cars capable of capturing a larger market share.
Even Toyota has awoken from its perennial design slumber and stepped up its design language as it works to attract more youthful buyers, especially in the US. It's no longer good enough for Toyota to build good cars that are boring. Their luxury brand, Lexus, is doing the same thing with its origami-derived sheet metal and spindle grill - cheapening the brand in my opinion by packing decades worth of evolution into one over-wrought design refresh. But, at least they read the memo and realize that they must think outside of the box if they want to stay relevant to younger consumers as their traditional buyers inevitably age out of the market.
This is a memo that Volkswagen would do well to read as well.