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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

When will they ever learn?

2 posts in this topic

When will they ever learn?

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 9/28, 8:00 a.m.) Detroit. As the news continues to trickle in from Germany about Volkswagen AG’s “grand plan” to absorb Porsche into the VW Empire, it’s shaping up to be a giant bowl of Not Good. To be blunt, their plans - both simple and scary at the same time - revolve around the hoary idea of using multiple platforms to dumb-down Porsche in the interest of gaining more volume and ultimately, more profits.

Now as for generating profitability, I never have a problem with that. It’s the dumbing-down part that I have a huge problem with. What does this platform sharing or “architecture expansion” really mean for Porsche on this, the 60th Anniversary of the brand?

First up it means there will be a version of the Audi Q5 in the Porsche stable, as if having one truck - the Cayenne - wasn’t enough. CEO Martin Winterkorn said that the new small SUV will be coming soon in an effort to expand Porsche’s lineup and crank-up sales. In an interview published in magazine Der Spiegel, Winterkorn said Porsche will get "a new SUV, a smaller brother to the Cayenne, which might be named Cajun."

I get the whole peppery motif, but really? Of all the things Porsche had on their future product wish list do you actually think having a little brother to the Cayenne was priority No. 1 before VW got involved? I would be willing to bet the answer to that question is a resounding no.

A lithe, super-light bare-bones sports car with a small displacement 4-cylinder engine and some form of electric assist that delivers a power-to-weight ratio close to the current standard Boxster and real-world fuel economy of 50 mpg or more in urban driving? Yeah, I could see that.

Or how about an all-new vision of the essence of Porsche, which, unlike the limited-production (and maximum sticker shock) boulevardier Speedster that was just announced, instead utilized the technology from the 918 Spyder concept to deliver a stunning new take on the production 911 of the future? Yup, I could easily imagine something like that too.

But another warmed-over VW product that will be wearing the Porsche crest? And yet another truck to boot? Uh, not so much.

I remember issuing a warning about the VW takeover of Porsche when it happened, saying that the official explanation – that this benign takeover would allow Porsche to survive and thrive well into the future – would be superseded by the ugly reality that Volkswagen’s real plan is to extract every last dollar of profitability from this once-exclusive maker of sports cars, historical legacy and brand image be damned.

VW has already demonstrated – and repeatedly so, I might add – that it doesn’t understand its own place in the U.S. market, as their new drive for profitability – and volume – threatens to unleash swarms of mediocre VWs on the American landscape in the pursuit of knocking off the Camry and Accord (as if that was some noble quest worth aspiring to), so why should we expect them to all of a sudden demonstrate lucidity and vision with the stewardship of the Porsche brand?

I would say it’s natural to get a bit queasy in the stomach at the thought that the Cayenne - which already shares underpinnings with the Audi Q7 and the VW Touareg - may be just the tip of the iceberg, and that VW may be ready to attack multiple segments with warmed-over VWs wearing the Porsche crest.

Well, guess what? There won’t be a vehicle like the 1899 Lohner-Porsche – Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s ‘Semper Vivus’ design for the vehicle featured two combustion engines and an electric hub motor and could store energy in a battery, technically, the first hybrid – that Porsche historians can dredge-up from the archives as some shred of evidence that indicated that the Founder envisioned a pseudo luxury 4-door Porsche sedan based on a de-contented Passat way back when.

And yes, I can hear the other side of the argument, too, and that is that VW has already done a superb job differentiating Bentley models from Audi and VW models and that there is every indication that they can pull-off more Porsche models based on VW and Audi models with ease.

I’m not so sure about that.

Winterkorn plans on expanding the Porsche lineup in the not-too-distant future to sell 150,000 vehicles annually - double the sales they have now – and I just have to ask, at what point do they go too far with Porsche? At what point do they create a vehicle that has no business wearing a Porsche crest, or even worse, at what point do they lose touch with all sense of reality in the quest for generating more profitability - while humoring VW CEO Ferdinand Piech and his obsession with becoming the world’s largest automaker - and make Porsche begin to blend into the woodwork saddled with the moniker of “just another car company.” You play in mundane segments for too long and that’s exactly what will happen.

After all, if a version of the Audi Q5 works for Porsche, why not a smaller, cheaper version of the Panamera based on the new VW sedan coming out of the new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee? See where this could lead? You get enough people on the more-profitability-through-increased-volume bandwagon and before you know it all semblance of reality will cease to exist and Porsche will be commoditized like the Golf, or even worse, a Camry.

My sense is that day is coming a lot sooner than everyone thinks. The Blue Sport Concept that VW showed at the Detroit Auto Show a couple of years ago is said to be the basis for a new, more affordable Porsche sports car that will come in under the Boxster in price. On paper, yeah, this could make sense - if the two cars are separated enough by price and sporting intent and character - but then again we’ve been down this road before with Porsche and VW.

Back in 1976, VW had a plan for a new sporty rear-wheel-drive coupe powered by an Audi 4-cylinder engine. They even commissioned Porsche to design the car on a contractual basis. But when VW went in a different direction product-wise Porsche decided to bring the car out on its own. Called the 924, U.S. auto journalists smelled a rat and justifiably crucified the car for what it was: a cheap, underpowered VW sporty car with a Porsche crest on its nose and with a Porsche price to boot.

That ill-fated decision by the Porsche brain trust at the time sent the company down a dismal road of mediocrity and the brand took a severe image hit, which it took years to recover from.

And now here we are again – almost 35 years later – and I just have a sickening feeling history is going to repeat itself with yet another looming VW-Porsche train wreck. The VW Blue Sport will come out in 2014 or thereabouts and a Porsche version of it will follow a year later for I’m guessing $10,000 more on the sticker.

And then some auto enthusiasts will send themselves into a frenzy while defending the car as an example of Porsche looking to secure its future by bringing a new entry-level car to market, while the rest of us will decry Porsche’s move as nothing more than squandering its legacy in a cynical, disingenuous ploy to extract even more money out of a dumbed-down consumer public who by then will accept a dumbed-down Porsche as the “real deal” because they won’t know or understand the difference anymore.

When will they ever learn?

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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