For years, General Motors has been the number-one seller of cars and trucks in the world, challenged only by Toyota. But now, German automaker Volkswagen is vying to be king of the global automotive hill.
In the U.S., sales were up a hefty 26.3% in 2011, and one of the models boosting VW's efforts is the all new 2012 Beetle, which managed more than 16,000 sales in just about ten weeks on sale.
There is arguably no vehicle in the world so directly associated with a brand and so well recognized as the Beetle. The basic design of the car, conceived in Nazi Germany during the 1930s as a car the masses could afford (think German Model-T), VW's growing fortunes in the U.S. actually hinge on much more than Beetle success. It must sell more sedans and SUVs that are less German in their personality and more American.
"I don't know if I would put it just that way," says Volkswagen of America chief Jonathan Browning. "But we are definitely being more responsive to the needs and wants of American drivers, which are not the same as European drivers."
Take the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, which VW is building at its new plant in Chatanooga, Tenn. The Passat, which was named MotorTrend Car of the Year, and was a finalist for AOL Autos Car of the Year, is longer, wider and quieter than VW's European version. The current Jetta sedan followed the same recipe and has been a sales success so far.
"The danger for VW is not so much that its U.S. offerings are trying to be a bit less German, but rather that the company seems to be chasing a goal of being the biggest rather than the best," says AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley, who is also author of "Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America, John Wiley & Sons, 2001."
Kiley added that he thinks the re-design of the Beetle could be a big boost to VW's business in the U.S., but that it is not a definite sales hit yet. "The car itself is a fantastic reinterpretation of the original, but I'm not sure the design is what the market is looking for right now," says Kiley.
Keep reading to find out how VW is chasing the "world's biggest automaker" crown.
The 2012 Beetle's design is not as overtly feminine in its design as its predecessor. The roof-line is more reminiscent of the original designed in the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche.
The Beetle is six inches longer and 3.3-inches wider than the 2010 model, and those dimensions give the car a very solid, planted look and feel.
The interior is fun, clean and slick with a dashboard panel that carries the body color of the car. That conjures up the memory of the look of the original. Headroom is plentiful. Seats are terrific.
The base 2012 carries the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine we don't love. The Turbo is our favorite version thus far. The 2.0-liter engine kicks 200 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque from just 1,700 rpm. Nice. You can opt for an automatic or manual transmission.
Fuel economy for the 2.0 Turbo is 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined. A TDI "clean diesel" is on the way.
E-Bugster Concept Car
The Volkswagen E-Bugster Concept is about what an all-electric Beetle would be like were VW to build one.
VW is applying its Blue-e-motion electric drive unit to the sexier Beetle shape ahead of its actual production debut later this year in the VW Golf. In this application, VW has fitted the E-Bugster Concept with an electric motor and 695-pound lithium-ion battery fitted under the rear seat and trunk floor. Combined they'll be good for a 100-mile driving range, according to VW,
2012 VW Passat
The new sedan has a starting price of just under $20,000 to make it price competitive in this highly competitive category of mid-sized sedans that is a battleground of value pricing. The 2011 Camry starts at $20,195. The Honda Accord starts at $21,380 and the Ford Fusion starts at $19,850. The entire price range for the Passat is from $19,995 to $32,950.
The Passat is MotorTrend Car of the Year and a finalist for North American Car of the Year. Powering the 2012 Passat is one of three engines-a 2.5 liter, five-cylinder engine producing 170 horsepower; a 3.6 liter V6 producing 280 hp; and a 2.0 liter TDI Clean diesel engine.
Despite the sub-$20,000 starting price, you can get above $30,000 without too much trouble. The V6 SE packages, which include 18" wheels, navigation, leather seating, the Fender premium audio system, heated seats and few other amenities, will crest $30K.
The best values with the Passat? We think it's the SE with sunroof and navigation ($26,795), which gets you the smooth 2.5 liter engine, six-speed auto transmission, smartphone interface, heated seats, aluminum trim dash and leather-wrapped seats.
The 2013 Jetta Hybrid
The Jetta launched in late 2010 to some jeers because of VW's moves to cheapen the interior of the car as it was driving the starting price to below $16,000.
But improvements made on the fly in 2011 have helped. The car is longer, wider and roomier than the previous Jetta, making it almost a legit alternative to a mid-sized sedan.
At this week's Detroit Auto Show, VW is showing a Hybrid version of the car with a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine and an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery pack.
Rather than aspire to Toyota Prius-like fuel economy of 51 mpg, VW is looking to offer the 44/44/44 (that's city/highway/combined) of the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid.
Volkswagen Diesels Clean Up
Volkswagen is the king of diesel in the U.S. It sells more than 50% of its vehicles in Europe with a diesel engine, so it has both the expertise and scale to offer them at pretty competitive prices in the U.S.
The public at large in the U.S. has not embraced clean diesel, though, owing to the fact that gas prices are hovering between $3.00 and $3.50 per gallon, and there are no tax incentives that would make diesel cheaper than gasoline as it is around most of Europe.
Still, diesel vehicles get 25%-35% better fuel economy than most comparable gas engines. They are faster than gas engines from a stop because of the low-end torque that comes from diesel engines. There are tens of thousands of diesel fans in the U.S., and VW is their favorite brand.
By mid-year, VW will be selling clean diesel versions of the Beetle to join the Jetta TDI, Passat TDI, and Touareg TDI.
Volkswagen Ads Still Got It
At the 2011 Super Bowl, Volkswagen cleaned up on most critic's lists as having the best ad of the big game.
The ad for the Passat featured a kid dressed up as Darth Vader from Star Wars going around the house trying to make things happen with a wave of his hand. To no avail. That is until he concentrates his cosmic powers on the Passat, which starts up at the wave of Darth's hand. In fact, the lad's father started up the car with a remote starter from inside the house. The kid was nevertheless impressed by his own powers.
It got the most downloads from YouTube of any Super Bowl ad, and was rated as the best car ad of the year by multiple critics.
Hoping to replay its success, VW will be in the Super Bowl again next month.
If VW is going to lead all automakers in sales, and climb to its goal of 800,000 sales in the U.S. by 2018, smart, engaging advertising has got to be part of the recipe. After all, witty Beetle advertising in the 1960s is credited with leading the transformation of the entire ad industry and is still studied by business school and advertising students for how to create effective ad campaigns.