Recently, over at Automotive News, my colleague Diana T. Kurylko, asked the question that fans of inexpensive German wheels have been pondering for some time now: Is Volkswagen of America cheapening its cars to boost volume at the cost of its German engineering image? Based on the evidence, the answer is a definite “Yah-vohl!”
Previous VW Jetta owners will notice that despite an increase in interior room (now equaling the outgoing 2010 Passat) and under-$16k starting price, the new 2011 Jetta lacks at lot the details that previous customers had no problem parting extra for over, say, a comparable Corolla/Civic/Mazda3. And the new Jetta is just the beginning of “dumbed down” VWs heading our way. The new 2012 Passat—essentially a bigger Jetta—comes this fall, and a rumoured future midsize crossover will continue with the Americanized Jetta’s formula.
One respected U.S. pub doesn’t think much of VW’s new product strategy. As Kurylko noted in her piece, in a group of 11 small sedans, Consumers Reports placed the Jetta dead last, finding “fault with its agility, cornering grip, coarse engine, braking, interior fit and finish and so-so fuel economy."
So the question isn’t “if” Volkswagen is dumbing down its products for North American (and Chinese) customers. Don’t kid anyone. It is. A better question is if new car buyers are becoming “dumber" as well. The popularity of the new Jetta seems to indicate so.
Volkswagen Canada’s March sales press release opened with, “Redesigned Jetta Continues to Lead the Way”. Year-to-date, VW Canada were 10,634 vehicles—a jump of 13 per cent over the same period last year, in a market that was up only 5.5 per cent. In March, sales of 2,445 Jettas resulted in a (drum roll please) 195 per cent improvement over last year.
(Anecdotally, at the dealership where I pick up my VW press cars, they can’t get over themselves how popular the Jetta base model with the decrepit Two-Point-Slow four-banger is. Apparently, the Jetta is attracting a new type of first-time VW buyer (the non-enthusiast, non-automotive- journalist type) who would rather upgrade the Jetta’s interior with heated seats, Bluetooth, and nav instead of upgrading underneath its hood to the smoother 2.5-litre five, diesel or turbo 2.0L.
Now, out of respect for VW, it will be launching the 2011 Jetta GLI in a few months, the poorman's BMW, for around $28k. In addition to the Golf GTI’s 200 hp four, it will sport a proper independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and a soft-touch dashboard—all items missing from any other new Jetta. But it will be a niche model. You know, for driving enthusiasts and automtive writers...
Of course, VW’s been down this path before. In the 1990s, the third generation Golf and Jetta suffered a big drop in perceived quality over their respective predecessors. But that Jetta became the best-selling VW in the States, and prevented the German automaker from a rumoured pullout out from North America entirely. So there.
But what do you think?
Will VW’s Americanization of its products help or hurt them in the long run?
Or are today’s new car buyers simply less discriminating?
[Sources: Automotive News, Volkswagen Canada, Consumers Reports, DesRosiers and Associates]