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Paris show: VW lights up Paris with XL Sport

Hot prospect: Heinz-Jakob Neusser prefers not to call the XL Sport coupe a concept, but a fully drivable one-off show special for now as its considers production possibilities for the future.

VW revs up image with Ducati-powered coupe as Australia maps out brand strategy

Volkswagen logo7 Oct 2014

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in PARIS

VOLKSWAGEN lit up the Paris motor show last week with the hard-charging high-performance XL Sport coupe, providing a tantalising glimpse of the potential synergies between passenger car and motorcycle technologies that exist at the giant European auto group.

Powered by the world’s most powerful V-twin engine from sister company Ducati, the driveable rear-engine coupe – which produces 147kW of power, revs to an eye-watering 11,000rpm, reaches 100km/h in 5.7 seconds and has a 270km/h top speed – is a one-off for now, with no firm plans for series production.

That said, the XL Sport has already succeeded in creating a fresh buzz around the Volkswagen brand, including in Australia where the German marque is steadily increasing sales volume and market share, commanding 4.9 per cent of the new-vehicle market and closing in on the likes of Mitsubishi and Nissan.

While Volkswagen’s global head of powertrain development Heinz-Jakob Neusser discussed the potential of the hyper-eco supercar at the Paris show, and later at last weekend’s WRC Rally of France – highlighting possible applications of the technology – Volkswagen Group Australia managing director John White revealed plans to secure a top-five sales ranking in Australia within the next few years, overtaking Ford and placing it within striking distance of Mazda, Hyundai and, potentially, Holden.

“We did the XL Sport Concept to see the reaction of consumers … and people are very interested,” Dr Neusser said. “But we have not made any decision to produce it.

“Sharing between Ducati and Volkswagen (is possible) … they both use hi-tech systems … low-weight drivetrains … so it is very interesting to us – maybe not for production engines, just some of the technology components.” Based on the limited-volume super-green XL1 plug-in hybrid coupe, which is a rolling showcase of Volkswagen’s environmental technology, the XL Sport is a different beast, swapping the twin-cylinder diesel-electric drivetrain for a modified V2 from the Ducati 1199 Superleggera.

Among the components name-checked by Dr Neusser as having potential to be shared within the brands is Ducati’s desmodromic valve system as featured in the XL Sport, though the possibilities extend well beyond the superbike’s mechanicals.

The design study – held aloft as the 200-millionth car produced by the Volkswagen Group – has attention to detail in many other areas such as awesome aerodynamics and super-lightweight but incredibly strong construction, underscoring Volkswagen’s pursuit of high performance and low consumption that has permeated its production models in recent years.

From an Australian perspective, the concept draws positive attention to the brand as it builds its buyer base and works on improving its sales performance, moving from a solid top-10 performer – currently in eighth place – to a force to be reckoned with near the top of the table.

To help get there, and to improve profitability, Volkswagen Group Australia will look to all-new or heavily redesigned models in key segments – a sub-Tiguan compact crossover, a bigger next-generation Tiguan small/medium SUV and a large seven-seat SUV, for example – and at the same time dispense with certain slow-selling niche models and, within certain lines, cut model complexity.

Speaking to GoAuto at the WRC event last weekend, Mr White said the strategy for Australia was no longer about “trying to bring in as many (products) and as many derivatives that was possible”.

“That helped grow the niche models over and above the core models,” he said. “What happens over time, those niche model sales start to drop off and you need to narrow your range and really start to concentrate on your core models and put resources behind there.

“Part of this whole de-proliferation simplification strategy is what’s behind that … if you have too much proliferation you never have the right car.” Mr White made no apologies for cutting cars such as the sub-compact Up, preferring to focus instead on more profitable lines such as Polo and building the brand beyond the all-important Golf with its “pillar” lines. The company is, however, committed to the brand-enhancing Scirocco R sports coupe, arriving here in a few weeks, and recently confirmed that the Alltrack version of the Golf shown in Paris is coming to Australia next year.

“In the Volkswagen brand we have very strong brand image, awareness and consideration in the VW brand we have very strong attributes with Golf,” Mr White said.

“(But) where we’re working on is trying to get more consideration and more awareness of specific models, our pillar models outside of the Golf, such as the Polo, such as the Tiguan, such as the Jetta and such as the Passat.

“We’ve got to create more awareness over time, and you need the awareness before you can get the consideration at the model level.

“We’re looking at sustainable and deliberate growth over time, as opposed to quantum-leap sales growth over a short period of time.

“Clearly we want to grow into a top-tier manufacturer space, not only as it pertains to volume but also as it pertains to customer satisfaction – that is our mission.

“So to me the number-one focus is, if I look at product, we have to simplify, reposition and work on our model awareness … to make sure it is as strong with the pillar models as it is with Golf.

“If we are able to do that consistently then I believe we will be able to move into that top-tier space.” One of the most high-profile victims of the new strategy has been the demise of the Up, which failed to find an audience in Australia despite glowing reviews and lowest-ever pricing for a Volkswagen.

Rejecting that the company did not specify the Up correctly by not offering an automatic transmission, Mr White believes consumers simply do not want city cars when light cars like the Polo from the next class up are virtually as cheap and more suited to Australian tastes.

“We’re not going to be taking any next-generation car, or a car even if it had a different transmission powertrain,” he said of the Up. “For us it’s a part of the rationalisation program, yes. Also that ‘sub-sub’ compact segment continues to dwindle.

“And we’re prepared to forsake the lost sales of Up with more business from Polo. We’ve positioned the Polo with a more attractive RRP. Our strategy is to make as much out of Polo as we can and we believe we can pick up more than the shortfall. And I believe it’s not going to affect us in the long term.

“That sub-sub compact segment is declining while the segment above it is becoming more attractive in terms of pricing and product pricing. I’d rather have a car that is more profitable for us and more profitable for our dealers, that plays in a bigger segment and that is just better all-round.

“So I think it was a good idea to bring that car in to see what it could do in that market, but we’ve evaluated it long enough and it’s time to move on.” Keeping things simple means that even comparatively successful niche models such as the Golf GTD are off the radar for the time being.

The previous version not only found several hundred buyers every year, it helped build Volkswagen’s reputation as an eco innovator within a performance sphere – a place Peugeot’s upcoming 308 GT BlueHDi aims to dominate when it arrives in Australia next March.

“We’ve considered GTD and it’s not coming into the market,” Mr White said. “We don’t see it having that much demand. Ideally you’d want to have everything on the market if you’re parked next door to the production source.” -with TERRY MARTIN

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