GABE NELSON

Yes, we get it: VW has big plans for the U.S.

Gabe Nelson covers Volkswagen out the Automotive News bureau in Washington, D.C.Gabe Nelson covers Volkswagen out the Automotive News bureau in Washington, D.C.
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GENEVA -- Need more evidence that Volkswagen AG is infatuated with the idea of conquering the American market?

Monday night, at the German automaker's sneak peek reception before the Geneva auto show, one of the guests of honor was Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian sky diver who gained worldwide attention in October by jumping from 23 miles above the Earth. The other was no celebrity; it was Amir Dizdarevic, a young sales consultant from Chicago who has jumped into the top spot among salespeople at his dealership.

Dizdarevic, of Jennings Volkswagen in Glenview, Ill., took the stage with Christian Klingler, the board member for sales at Volkswagen AG, who gave a presentation on how the automaker approaches customers in markets outside Europe.

Chinese customers expect the utmost courtesy, Klingler said, and VW offers them massages and TV lounges. In Japan, sales staffers visit customers at home to run them through vehicle options. Customers in Turkey can stand around and watch as their cars are repaired to pick up skills, the sales chief said.

As for the United States, the young American salesman was asked how his country has responded to the Passat, which was redesigned to U.S. tastes and has been built in Chattanooga since 2011.

"We absolutely love it," Dizdarevic replied.

OK, so maybe he wouldn't dare say anything else, not in the presence of VW's entire executive lineup, all the way down from Chairman Ferdinand Piech and CEO Martin Winterkorn.

But even if it was for show, the fact that Dizdarevic was in Geneva -- and was asked for his opinion -- shows the level of focus on the United States by Europe's largest automaker. A decade ago, this probably would not have happened, but VW's ambitious U.S. sales goals and the European economic downturn have changed things.

Later, while Dizdarevic was walking around VW's new XL1 plug-in hybrid and snapping pictures, he said he started the job at Jennings, his first at a dealership, almost two years ago. VW noticed him because of his ranking among salesmen and his YouTube videos, where he walks around the cars and points out their features.

A week ago, VW invited Dizdarevic to Geneva. He said he was grateful for a chance to see some of the new cars he will be selling next year, such as the GTI hatchback, a hot seller in Chicago.

But the reliance goes both ways. If VW neglects its American sales force, the company will have a harder time hitting its target of 800,000 U.S. vehicle sales for the VW brand by 2018. VW wants to show that it gets it.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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