Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Detroit — Volkswagen launches an all-new Jetta compact car, its biggest seller in the US, at the Detroit Auto Show on Sunday as the German car maker looks to revive sales in the world’s second-largest automotive market and move on from the emissions scandal that has tarnished its reputation over the past few years.

The world’s largest vehicle maker is still grappling with investigations and lawsuits around the world related to revelations that it cheated government emissions tests for diesel-powered vehicles and has already paid $30bn in fines and costs for the fraud.

But there are signs the company is repairing the damage with consumers. Volkswagen brand sales worldwide rose to a record of more than 6-million cars in 2017, two company sources told Reuters ahead of publication of the data on Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

"Some of our critics thought the diesel crisis would block our view. Instead we have, undeterred by the crisis or rather fired by it, developed our digitisation and electrification strategy," Audi CEO Rupert Stadler, a member of VW’s executive board, told reporters on December 11.

Some of our critics thought the diesel crisis would block our view. Instead we have, undeterred by the crisis or rather fired by it, developed our digitisation and electrification strategy
Rupert Stadler

In the US, VW brand sales rose 5.2% in 2017, even as US consumers turned away from smaller cars that are still the brand’s mainstay.

"We’re back," Hinrich Woebcken, the new head of the Volkswagen brand in North America, told reporters on the sidelines of the Los Angeles motor show in November.

Spurred by a perception that the authoritarian culture at VW had been a factor in the cheating, top management has also loosened the reins on the VW empire and decentralised power from its Wolfsburg, Germany headquarters.

For example, German native Woebcken said US managers concluded that the original name for an SUV the company planned to launch in America would not work.

The original name "started with a T, and then it broke your tongue", Woebcken said.

US Volkswagen executives proposed a simpler name for the US market — Atlas.

Wolfsburg management went along. The Atlas, launched from VW’s Tennessee factory last year, accounted for nearly 8% of VW brand sales in the US last year.

"It’s unusual to give a regional name to a product," Woebcken said. "In terms of VW, it is a pretty big thing."

Electric vehicles, microbus ahead VW

Group CEO Matthias Mueller will stay away from the Detroit show next week to let the car maker’s US leaders present the redesigned Jetta, which represented a third of the brand’s 340,000 US sales in 2017.

With a lowered roofline and a new 8-speed automatic transmission, the model is tailored to US design and fuel-economy needs and drew more input from North American engineers than its predecessor, the sources said ahead of the Sunday launch.

VW’s historical underperformance in the US was a problem for the company long before "dieselgate" and the failure by top managers to tap the SUV boom and other market trends in 2014 caused labour boss Bernd Osterloh to denounce VW’s US business as a "catastrophe".

VW now hopes to reshape its image, in part by persuading environmentally conscious, younger consumers and regulators in its major markets that it is serious about electric vehicles (EVs). VW has raised its planned spending on EVs, self-driving technology and digital mobility businesses across the group to €34bn through 2022.

Volkswagen is now betting that a new modular platform dubbed MEB, designed to underpin more than 20 purely battery-powered brand models, will allow it to turn profits on EVs when they launch from 2019, in part because they share parts with other cars built from MEB.

Woebcken said VW is working now on a decision about where to build future EVs for the US, including a new VW Microbus promised for 2022.

VW has been teasing US consumers with Microbus concepts for years, trying to rekindle the warm feelings for the vehicle synonymous with the free-wheeling 1960s.

"We did not have a clue how to get it industrialized," Woebcken said. "Now, we have, with the MEB platform. It’s decided. It’s industrialised. It will come."

Reuters