American market still eludes VW

German-based automaker set big sales goal for 2018

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SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Two years after Volkswagen kicked off its latest push to become more than an also-ran in the U.S. car market, Detroit's automakers are hitting back hard.

Consumer Reports lauded General Motors' Chevrolet Impala as the best sedan on the market. Ford's Fusion is winning share from Toyota's Camry, the top- selling car in the U.S.

The VW Passat, which was made bigger and cheaper to appeal to mainstream American drivers, never cracked the Top 20 models in the U.S.

While Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen has become the world's third-largest automaker thanks to well-timed expansions in China and Brazil, the U.S. has remained something of a riddle for Europe's biggest carmaker. Finding a solution to make VW more than just a niche player is key to achieving its goal of becoming the world's biggest automaker by 2018.

"We understand Europe, we understand China and we understand Brazil," VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech told Bloomberg News this month in Vienna. "But we only understand the U.S. to a certain degree so far."

The lack of progress in the world's second-biggest auto market is a source of frustration for Volkswagen, which was the top-selling foreign automaker in the U.S. until Toyota surpassed it in 1975. Its Beetle and Microbus are icons, ensconced in American popular culture from Disney's "Herbie the Love Bug" and Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" to "Little Miss Sunshine" and the TV show "Lost."

Piech's comment marks a bit of a departure from the company's usual confidence about meeting the 2018 goal to be the global leader in sales and profits.

"Our pursuit of innovation and perfection and our responsible approach will help to make us the world's leading automaker by 2018 — both economically and ecologically," Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn said in a letter to shareholders in the company's 2012 annual report.

With VW being outspent on advertising by more than two to one and slow to plug gaps in its lineup, the German automaker is at risk of missing its 2018 U.S. sales target by 33 percent, IHS Automotive estimates. The VW and Audi brands combined probably will continue to lose market share in October, according to four analysts in a survey by Bloomberg News.

The redesigned Passat was embraced by the automotive press: Motor Trend praised its cornering and "clean, chiseled body" among the traits of the "almost perfect" family sedan.

While the Passat helped to almost double the brand's U.S. sales, aided by a popular television commercial featuring a boy dressed as Darth Vader, growth is flagging. Through September, VW brand deliveries declined 2.6 percent as fewer Americans bought Golf hatchbacks and Jetta sedans, even as industrywide demand rose 8.1 percent.

Combined deliveries of the VW and Audi brands probably rose 3.3 percent in October, the average of three analysts' estimates. Industrywide sales last month, which will be released tomorrow, are projected to climb 7.3 percent, the average of nine estimates. Even if this month's VW sales exceed estimates, the 2018 goal is going to be hard to reach.

"VW has never really taken the U.S. customer seriously," said Arndt Ellinghorst, head of auto research at International Strategy and Investment Group in London. "They tend to over- engineer their cars and hope that Americans will one day appreciate them."

VW's U.S. ad spending of $691 million is dwarfed by GM's $1.83 billion, Toyota's $1.76 billion and Ford's $1.62 billion, according to data from market researcher Nielsen.

The company also needs to plug gaps in its lineup. Plans to flank the Passat with a big, affordable, U.S.-style sport-utility vehicle haven't been finalized almost 10 months after the Crossblue prototype was shown at the Detroit auto show. Based on typical development times of three years, the model may not reach showrooms before 2016, five years after the Passat.

The lack of a competitor to the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander leaves VW in the SUV segment with just the compact Tiguan and the $43,995 Touareg, which costs 11 percent more than the luxury Lexus RX. That shuts it out of a big chunk of the U.S. market.

VW's sales are forecast to rise to 535,000 cars in 2018, according to IHS Automotive. While that's a 22 percent gain from last year, the target — set in 2007 — is for 800,000 autos.