To Climb In U.S., Volkswagen Gets Less German Volkswagen has come a long way since it tried to market cars to Americans with the "Fahrvergnugen" slogan. The company has adapted to the U.S. market with bigger, less quirky cars. It seems to have paid off, as sales rose last year in the U.S. — but the company is set on becoming No. 1 worldwide.
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To Climb In U.S., Volkswagen Gets Less German

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To Climb In U.S., Volkswagen Gets Less German

To Climb In U.S., Volkswagen Gets Less German

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

2011 was a very good year for the German automaker Volkswagen. 2012 could be even better. Last year, sales for Volkswagen's brands, including Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini, increased by 20 percent in the U.S. If things continue to go Volkswagen's way, it could become the number one carmaker in the world.

Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I love to look at car commercials not because they're good, which they're usually not, but because they offer a glimpse into the corporate mind of an automaker. Here's a Volkswagen commercial you might remember from 1990.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's a word for this driving experience: Fahrvergnugen. Fahrvergnugen is what makes a car a Volkswagen.

GLINTON: Let's just pause for a moment to soak that in. Fahrvergnugen, really?

Rebecca Lindland is director of research with IHS automotive. She says for a very long time, Volkswagen took a very German approach to making American cars.

REBECCA LINDLAND: They - yeah, they always kind of look askance at just the sheer sizes of our vehicles, let alone our demand for cupholders.

GLINTON: Lindland says Volkswagen wasn't providing American consumers with the kind of cars the vast majority of Americans wanted or, for that matter, needed.

LINDLAND: The way that we drive is so different here that, you know, we drive - I mean, we cover long distances. We have really bad commutes. We have larger families, and we are bigger people, whether we want to be or not.


LINDLAND: We just are.

GLINTON: So Volkswagen, which is a dominant player in Europe and Asia, is not even in the top five in the U.S. market. Volkswagen began to realize that it wasn't going to grow in the U.S. market.

LINDLAND: Unless they give in to some of these realities of our market, that it is different. You cannot put the same car in Germany and in the States and expect the same level of demand.

GLINTON: So Volkswagen has refocused its attention on the American market. They reintroduced a new version of their iconic car, the Beetle. And the company also introduced bigger, less quirky cars to the American market.


GLINTON: That is "The Imperial March" or Darth Vader's theme music. It's from "Star Wars" and VW's Super Bowl commercial for its new Passat.


GLINTON: That commercial with the kid pretending to be Darth Vader helped catapult sales of the Passat. And in the U.S., Volkswagen car sales have risen more than 20 percent. The company has made it clear that it wants to grow sales not just in the U.S. It wants to be the number one car company in the world.

Jonathan Browning is president and CEO of Volkswagen of America.

JONATHAN BROWNING: We were not fixated on the number. We're focused on putting the infrastructure, the foundations in place that will allow this growth to be sustained over time. It's not just about saying we've won the battle one month or one quarter. It's building this in a sustainable way over time.

GLINTON: Part of that infrastructure means, for instance, a plant here in the U.S., in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Workers at VW's plant are among the lowest paid in the American auto industry. It's expected that VW in the U.S. will be targeted for unionization by the United Auto Workers.

Again, CEO Jonathan Browning

BROWNING: At the end of the day, it will be our employees that make any specific decision in terms of unionization. But our focus is very much in terms of getting the plant up and running. Right now, all the signs are good in terms of success in the plant.

GLINTON: Right now, Volkswagen is in a race with Toyota for the number two spot in the world. To pass General Motors, to get to number one, the company needs to move up a few notches in the U.S.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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