GENEVA -- This winter, when Volkswagen Group of America discovered that diesel versions of the Volkswagen Jetta and Passat were having trouble in Canada's cold climate, executives in the United States didn't need permission from Germany to fix the problem.
That is because in October, Volkswagen AG gave them the authority to take care of flaws in U.S.- and Mexico-made cars, which make up 70 percent of Volkswagen division's U.S. sales, said Marc Trahan, head of quality at Volkswagen Group of America. The move was part of a plan to respond more nimbly to both technical flaws and Americans' complaints -- and thus move VW-brand models up in the quality rankings.
This authority is not endless; the U.S. executives have a limit "in the millions of euros" on the amount they may spend on a quality project without permission from headquarters, Trahan said.
"We now have the independence to sort of be in charge of our own destiny," he said during an interview last week at the Geneva auto show. "It can be engineering," he added, when asked what he now has authority to change. "It can be a supplier. It can be a solution that we want to implement in the market to update all the cars that are currently in customer hands."
Despite recent sales gains, quality remains a sore spot for VW. The brand ranked 28th of 32 brands in the 2013 J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures the number of reported problems with a model after three years of ownership. VW routinely also has ranked near the bottom of J.D. Power's closely watched Initial Quality Study and has several models that have failed to win a recommendation from the magazine Consumer Reports.
Trahan, who took over as Audi's head of quality in 2002 and was given responsibility for both Audi and the VW brand in 2010, said the goal for VW remains to score above average in initial quality consistently and have all its models recommended by Consumer Reports.
So far progress has been elusive; the VW brand slipped a bit in the latest dependability study compared with the 2012 study, showing an extra five problems on average per 100 vehicles while the industry average reflected six fewer problems.
"I would always like to see that progress recognized more quickly, but we're absolutely convinced that we're doing the right things," Volks-wagen Group of America CEO Jonathan Browning told reporters last week.
The decisions now made by Trahan and company used to be made by groups reporting to Frank Tuch, chief quality officer at Volkswagen AG. Trahan said he would routinely have to wait four to six weeks to ask German executives for approval.
Volkswagen Group of America now holds its own quality meetings every few weeks, rotating between the technical center in Auburn Hills, Mich., and assembly plants in Chattanooga and Puebla, Mexico.