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Volkswagen's U.S. boss talks Beetle, future plans

Fri, 22 Apr 2011

It's been a crazy week for Volkswagen and U.S. chief executive Jonathan Browning.

On Monday, the 2012 Beetle was revealed after great anticipation at gala events in New York and Shanghai. Later that night, no less than the Black Eyed Peas played a VW party. And on Wednesday, the car actually made its debut on the floor of the New York auto show.

Phew. That's a lot. And when a car is redesigned with the rarity of the Beetle, it makes for some commotion. AutoWeek caught up with Browning this week at the show.

The initial reaction to the Beetle has been positive, he said, and it's generating tons of attention for VW. While the last model was occasionally seen as a bit of a feminine car, this new version harks back to the original and could lure more male customers. The roof has been raked, the fenders are a bit more pulled out, and there are three engines, including the 200-hp four-cylinder from the GTI.

“It has been an amazing reaction,” Browning said in an interview in his private conference room behind the VW stand in New York.

Then again, a redesigned Beetle is hardly a common thing, as he pointed out, so the company was anticipating--and received--the publicity bump it was hoping for under the bright lights of the Big Apple.

VW is in the midst of a product blitz, showing the Passat in Detroit and having relatively new Jetta and Touareg products on the market. Browning said March was the company's best sales month in the United States in seven years, and it's working to achieve the ambitious goals set by parent Volkswagen AG.

“This is about building the foundation for growth,” he said. “The sales numbers are the results of doing the right thing.”

The white-haired CEO has been on the job less than a year, and he says his operation is generating “good momentum” so far. He also discussed future products that could come to the U.S., though he was quick to note nothing has been approved.

If he had his druthers, the Scirocco would be en route to the States--but it won't because of a variety of homologation rules and changes that would be needed to fit this market. A future generation of the car could come here, he said.

Browning also would like a seven-seater to compete in the larger SUV segment, and says hybrids could complement the company's spotlight diesel engines. The Touareg has a hybrid variant, and the Jetta gets one in late 2012.

It was a busy week for Browning. And if VW is to attain its lofty sales targets in the United States, it will only get busier.

By Greg Migliore