WOLFSBURG, Germany - You can call Volkswagen many things. But don't call it timid.
The company will boost the price of a loaded 1998 Passat substantially and will add such new equipment as four-wheel drive. Volkswagen said it wants the redesigned Passat to challenge BMW and Mercedes in the United States.
Despite the higher price, the company bravely predicts that Passat sales will double to 40,000 in the United States in calendar 1998.
The new Passat, due in October, is part of Volkswagen's bold plans to recast its image in the United States.
'The perception of consumers in the States is that we are still the Beetle company,' said Jens Neumann, a member of the Volkswagen AG board of management. 'They probably don't realize we can offer cars equivalent in quality to BMW and Mercedes.'
Besides the new Passat, Volks-wagen also will bring the new Beetle and a redesigned Golf to American showrooms next year. VW executives declined to disclose plans for the next Jetta, which is the company's volume leader in North America.
Production of the new Beetle is expected to begin in Puebla, Mexico, late in first quarter of 1998, said Rutbert Reisch, chief financial officer of Volkswagen. It will go on sale shortly thereafter.
The next-generation Golf also will bow in the United States in mid-1998.
NEW VIEW OF VW?
U.S. consumers will change their view of Volkswagen when they see the quality improvements in next year's new products, said VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech.
'The new Passat stands for a new orientation of Volkswagen,' he said.
VW expects to sell 40,000 Passats in the United States in 1998, compared with 19,850 in 1996.
As for the Beetle, Volkswagen will build about 100,000 in the first year of production, Reisch said. The bulk of Beetle sales are expected to be in the United States and Western Europe, he said.
Volkswagen acknowledged that it will not be easy to convince American consumers of the Beetle's quality improvements. The company's marketers will not over-emphasize the retro nature of the youth favorite of the 1960s.
'It will be a big task to keep that emotional side of the Beetle and to tell our customers they can now have a high-tech car,' Neumann said, 'I believe we can do it.'
The new Beetle and the next-generation Golf will share the 'A' platform with the Audi A3. It is one of just four platforms that VW will use by the end of 1998. But Volkswagen will offer 46 models off those platforms in 1998 and 51 models by the end of 1999, Reisch said.
The new Passat shares the 'B/C' platform with the Audi A4 and A6.
In Europe, the new Passat was introduced in October 1996 and quickly became a hit.
'If you order a new Passat now, you can't get it delivered until after Christmas,' said Jurgen Leohold, general manager of Volkswagen AG vehicle electronic engineering. 'All of us are overwhelmed with the demand here.'
Volkswagen will increase production at its Emden and Mosel plants in Germany, where the Passat is assembled, Leohold said.
In the United States, the redesigned Passat will be equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that has five valves per cylinder and is turbocharged. The engine will generate 150 hp.
Later, two optional engines will be offered: a 2.8-liter V-6, also with five valves per cylinder, that generates 193 hp; and a 1.9-liter four-cylinder diesel with direct injection. All engines will be mated with a five-speed manual transmission.
Speaking to reporters here, Volkswagen AG spokesmen said that based on its price of 52,000 marks in Germany, the Passat GLX with the V-6 engine would cost about $26,250 in the United States.
An optional five-speed automatic transmission would be $1,075 extra, and the syncro all-wheel-drive option would add another $1,600.
However, prices for the United States have not been finalized, said Maria Leonhauser, director of public relations for Volkswagen of America Inc.
A well-equipped Passat now costs about $24,000 in the United States.
The U.S. launch will feature the sedan only, with the wagon following in 1998, probably as a 1999 model, Leohold said.
Volkswagen does not anticipate that the new Passat will cannibalize sales of the Audi 4 in the United States, saying the cars have different personalities. Audi is selling all of its A4 production now in Europe, Leohold said.
The new Passat is 184.1 inches long - 2.6 inches longer than the current model. The wheelbase is 106.4 inches, a 3.1-inch increase.