VW to Detroit: We're out for our share

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DETROIT -- Jonathan Browning had just one message for the party Sunday night at Detroit's downtown bar, Cliff Bell's.

"For those of you who don't recognize this voice, this is Jonathan Browning," the CEO of Volkswagen Group of America croaked over the noisy room, a bad cold making it difficult to talk. After waiting patiently for his German board of directors to make their delayed arrival at the party, as soon as the executives squeezed through the door, Browning took the stage amid band amplifiers, drums and microphones to say what he wanted to tell the Detroit world gathering.

"We will be profitable again in 2012," he assured the barroom of European, North American and Asian guests standing shoulder to shoulder. "And as a group," he declared, "we are going to sell over 500,000 vehicles."

VW and Audi might well give the international press a glimpse of their future product plans at press conferences later this morning at the Detroit auto show. But whatever they show on stage under swirling spotlights and booming music, their real North American message this year will be Browing's: The automaker is out for more of the same as 2011, when it clocked a 23 percent U.S. sales increase.

Hitting the company's 500,000-plus U.S. sales goal in 2012 will mean more market penetration here by its existing product line -- particularly the redesigned mid-sized Passat. Now pitched squarely against the big-volume Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the once puny-selling Passat is positioned to grow.

But more will have to come from the Audi brand, too. Last year, Audi's success pushed it past the Infiniti brand in the U.S. rankings, and put it within reach of also overtaking Acura if business holds up in 2012.

As the band started up after Browning's comments, he quickly left the party to hurry home to recuperate. He has a big year ahead of him.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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