VW bet on China nearly 30 years ago. Now it is the world’s biggest car market and VW has 18% of it, through two joint ventures. They sell 2m vehicles a year and plan to double this by 2018. A glut of cheap cars is hurting prices in China but VW’s premium models are doing well the group’s share of its Chinese ventures’ profits rose from 1.9 billion in 2010 to 2.6 billion last year. VW has long been big in Brazil (market share 22%), and is expanding fast in Russia (9%). The weakest BRIC in its wall is India, where its share is less than 5%. Suzuki, whose affiliate Maruti Suzuki has almost 50% of the Indian market, should have been the perfect partner there.
The “Beetlemania” that VW enjoyed in America in the 1960s, when its Beetle was the pioneer of smaller, cheaper cars, faded in the 1970s. Decades of weak sales and losses ensued. VW closed its Pennsylvania factory in 1988 because the cars it made were lousy. It tried importing from Mexico but couldn’t make this pay. Now, with a big new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a revamped dealer network and the successful launch of the new Jetta, a family saloon, VW is back on a roll in America. Its sales there rose by 23% last year to 444,000, and its aim of selling 1m cars by 2018 looks achievable. However, VW’s quality ratings in America remain well below average, according to surveys by J.D. Power.
Like BMW, another admired German carmaker, VW seems to have succeeded because it is run by petrolheads. Mr Piech’s passion for engineering pervades the group. He is the strategist; Mr Winterkorn the get-things-done guy. Hans-Dieter Petsch, the chief financial officer, has helped a lot by controlling costs, says Max Warburton of Sanford C. Bernstein, an investment bank. VW’s other chiefs enjoy considerable freedom—unless they incur the chairman’s wrath.
For all VW’s success, it is rare to hear people outside the firm praising the “Volkswagen Way” as they once lauded the “Toyota Production System”. VW has ignored Toyota’s obsession with the production line, says Mr Warburton, and concentrated on saving costs through parts-sharing between models. It has managed to preserve a culture of permanent innovation and a willingness to take risks. If there is a Volkswagen Way, it is to be determined, diligent and attentive to detail, with a glint of ruthlessness.
Still, plenty could go wrong. Toyota captured the top spot from GM in 2008, only to stumble on quality as it rushed for quantity. VW’s shared platforms make it vulnerable if one of them turns out to be flawed.
Sprawl and loss of focus are another risk. Take the SEAT brand, for instance, which lost 225m last year. What is it for Mr Winterkorn describes it as VW’s “sporty, design-oriented” brand for young people. But how does SEAT’s new Toledo, which VW describes as “a practical, top-quality and affordable car for the whole family”, fit that image If VW already has one brand too many, SEAT is it.
An earlier growth spurt, during Mr Piech’s time as chief executive, led to VW’s brands churning out lots of competing models while overlooking popular new trends, such as the “compact multipurpose vehicle” pioneered by Renault with its Scenic. Upper-end Volkswagens and Skodas are now competing with lower-end Audis. SEATs, Skodas and VWs have different images but much in common under the hood. Relying on buyers’ brand loyalty has worked so far, but for how long Procter & Gamble, which is to toiletries what VW is to cars, stumbled after “taking on every competitor in every category in every region of the world at once,” as an analyst put it in The Economistlast week. That seems to be what VW is doing now.
VW is so big in China that it would be vulnerable to a downturn there. Likewise in Brazil, where its Chinese rivals are starting to encroach. And VW has a closer challenger in its rear-view mirror Hyundai-Kia, which is pushing upmarket while continuing to churn out small, good-value motors. It has around half of its home market in South Korea, is ahead of VW with a 9% share in America and is making inroads in Europe and emerging markets. And unlike VW, it does not have a profusion of brands to support.
If the euro falls apart, VW’s German factories will suddenly find their costs denominated in expensive Deutschmarks. That cosy relationship with Lower Saxony (whose blocking stake the European Commission is seeking to remove) might become a burden if VW needed to make swift cuts to maintain profitability. If circumstances require a change of direction, the monoculture at the top of VW may react slowly. With so many executives close to retirement—Mr Piech is 75 and Mr Winterkorn 65—succession is another worry.
However, such problems are hypothetical. As VW drives relentlessly towards world domination, Bernstein’s Mr Warburton says that Mr Piech “will go down in history as an automotive legend, in the same class as Gottlieb Daimler, Henry Ford and Kiichiro Toyoda.”