Special Coverage

Frankfurt Auto Show

FRANKFURT – A dozen additional vehicles stand between Volkswagen Group and its goal of reaching annual sales of 8 million units, Chairman and CEO Martin Winterkorn says.

In a candid, wide-ranging roundtable discussion with journalists here at the Frankfurt auto show, Winterkorn admits the auto maker has been too slow to react to the U.S. market, which ranks high on his list of concerns.

“The U.S. is one of our most significant and important markets,” he says. “Expanding our position in the U.S. is a top strategic priority.”

Historically, the U.S. has received new vehicles well after they bowed in Europe. This year’s U.S. debut of the high-performance VW R32 lagged the European introduction by more than a year.

That practice will end, Winterkorn vows, as will the cavalier attitude toward the auto maker’s American consumer.

“Our problem is we build cars for Europe and think we can sell them in the same class in America,” he says. “We have to redesign.”

Winterkorn’s goal for the U.S. is to reach sales of 1 million units annually within 10 years. Through August, Audi and VW combined for 325,256 deliveries, even with last year despite VW losing about 25,000 units due to tightened U.S. emissions requirements that forced it to withdraw its diesel powertrains for a year.

Globally, however, the auto maker is on track to exceed 6 million-unit sales for the first time, Winterkorn says.

The new vehicles – set for introduction within the next three years – include the A1 small car, A3 cabriolet, A7 coupe and Q5 cross/utility vehicle from Audi; and the Scirocco sports hatchback, Passat Coupe, new minivan and Tiguan CUV from VW.

The production-version Tiguan was unveiled here.

Also scheduled is a pickup destined for emerging markets such as Latin America. It will come in three variations, Winterkorn says, none of which is envisioned for the hotly contested U.S. pickup market.

He is purposely vague on the remaining four vehicles.

There is “perhaps” an Audi Q3 CUV, Winterkorn says. It would be positioned beneath the Q5.

And he hints at a VW car slotted between the Jetta and Passat models.

Last but not least, there is a small car based on the Up! concept unveiled here. No formal decision has been made to proceed with production, but Winterkorn suggests confirmation is imminent.

“I think we will do it after the motor show,” says Winterkorn, who smiles when asked to describe his role in developing the stylish car that has been surrounded by onlookers from the moment it went on display here Tuesday morning.

Developing the Up! was his “first idea” since taking charge of VW in January following the ouster of Bernd Pischetsrieder. Winterkorn had been chairman of Audi AG.

His vision was to build a successor to the Lupo minicar, which went out of production in 2005 after a lackluster 7-year run. It was positioned under the VW Polo.

Winterkorn also confirms a production-version Up! would feature the same rear-engine layout as the concept.

“It’s not possible to make a car like it with the engine in the front because of (European Union) pedestrian protection (standards),” he explains.

Winterkorn also reveals VW is contemplating how it might sell the Phaeton luxury sedan again in the U.S. He floats the idea of equipping the car with a high-performance diesel.

Poor sales forced the auto maker to pull the plug on the car in mid-2006. Executives with Volkswagen of America Inc. confirm nothing is definite.

And on the subject of Porsche AG acquiring a larger stake of VW, Winterkorn sees only benefits.

“Why not?” he asks, adding the auto makers share common goals: to be successful and generate sustained profits.

emayne@wardsauto.com