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VW Retools to U.S. Tastes, Finally

Volkswagen was the first import brand to make it big in the U.S. about 50 years ago. So one might think the German auto maker would have long ago figured out the American car market.

But for a stretch, VW went the wrong way down a one-way street by failing to understand American tastes.

“To some extent, we lost our way,” Jonathan Browning, president and CEO of Volkswagen of America, says at the J.D. Power International Automotive Roundtable conference held in conjunction with the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in Las Vegas.

After studying the map of American car-consumer preferences, the auto maker says it is back on the right road. But it was a white-knuckle drive for a while.

VW sales in the U.S. peaked in 1970 with 582,573 deliveries, according to WardsAuto. Then, sales went off the cliff, bottoming out at 49,533 units in 1993.

Things are better now. VW sold 324,000 units in 2011, a 32% increase over 2010.

So what was the problem before?

It wasn’t that VW didn’t make good cars. It did. Instead, it made cars for its home market, expecting Americans to adjust to Euro-tastes.

Bad move, in retrospect. Many Americans didn’t take to some VW interior elements, or sometimes the absence of them.

For example, VW models for a long time lacked connectivity features, such as Blue Tooth capability. Those things are important to Americans, says Browning, who is British by the way.

Seat-adjustment controls in past models “worked perfectly well, but they were not suited to U.S. tastes,” he says. Now they are.

American motorists use vehicle air-conditioning systems a lot; European drivers use them only once in a while. “In the U.S., the air conditioning has to be easy to use and adjust,” Browning says, referring to another corrective step VW took.

VW also eventually realized and then addressed the fact that “U.S. car customers are extremely sensitive to wind noise,” he says.

So, today’s VW vehicles sold in the U.S., such as the hot-selling Jetta compact, feature all those things Americans like, from connectivity to quiet interiors.

Mike Jackson, CEO of Auto Nation, the largest dealership chain in the U.S., suggests “a certain arrogance” hurt VW in the past.

“The attitude was, ‘We make these great products that Americans just don’t understand and appreciate,’” he says.

VW hopes to sell one million vehicles in the U.S. by 2018. That is a grand goal. Some industry observers think it is too ambitious. But if VW doesn’t quite get there six years from now, at least it is pretty sure it knows where it’s going.

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