Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Volkswagen: Big Plans Beyond The Bug

When you think of Volkswagen, what pops into your mind? Let me guess: the Beetle, Microbus, and Jetta all bring a smile to your face. Then it fades as you think about the Touareg, Phaeton, and a company that often appears lost. I call it the split personality of VW. A company with so much brand recognition and affinity has drifted with puzzling product roll outs and inconsistent marketing plans.

But that could be changing.

VW North America CEO Stefan Jacoby's plan for reviving the German automaker's U.S. sales is about to pick up speed. Friday, Jacoby will announce VW will become the first mass market automaker to make electronic stability control standard across the entire VW line-up starting next year. As Jacoby told me Wednesday, the "ESP" move is all about pushing safety and giving American buyers what they should have years before the government mandates it.

But Jacoby's not stopping there. He knows VW's been playing for too long with safe, limited impact models. The Beetle? It's nice, but stuck in a rut. The Jetta? Same thing. As Jacoby told me, "We need to be in the sweet spot of the U.S. market." That's why VW is adding the Routan minivan and Tiguan CUV in the next year. In all, VW is rolling out 5 new models this year.

Jacoby tells me he expects sales to grow 5 percent this year, even with sales down 5.3 percent after 2 months in '08. With new models he should get there. Even in a down market for the overall industry.

This is just the start for VW. In the months to come the automaker will announce plans for building an assembly plant in North America (likely in the Southeast). And I suspect it won't be long until VW has a new, consistent marketing plan. You get the idea. The automaker is hitting the gas here in the states.

Given Volkswagen's "boom and bust" history of being wildly successful and then drifting for years, I wouldn't be surprised if VW can pull off another revival. This company still has a ton of affinity with Americans. Now Stefan Jacoby is ready to tap that fondness to kick start the struggling automaker.

VW Shifting Gears

Questions?  Comments?