THE HIDDEN MESSAGE IN VW’S ATLAS PICKUP TRUCK

 

Regardless of its design, Volkswagen’s (now somewhat spoiled, thanks to Automotive News) surprise reveal of a unibody pickup concept at the New York auto show Wednesday provides two important proof points for the future of the German brand in the United States and its aspirations to grow much, much bigger.

The first is easy to discern: It’s the limits of the flexibility of Volkswagen’s MQB platform. But the second is more important: The pickup is a true test of whether Wolfsburg is really ready to give up control and let its North American region drive the business on its own.

Let’s get the first one out of the way. Volkswagen Group spent tens of billion of euros developing the MQB platform in the last part of the previous decade and the early part of this one. MQB — which is an incredibly flexible modular platform that fixes only the measurement between the front wheel and the driver’s foot pedals — has been underlying Volkswagen vehicles since 2012, including the three-row Atlas crossover that came to market in 2017 and the redesigned Jetta coming to dealerships this year.

 It’s the modularity of the MQB platform that makes developing a unibody pickup much less expensive an endeavor for Volkswagen than it might be at a rival automaker. It also means that, should the vehicle get greenlit, it could easily be built alongside the Atlas and Passat — and now the Atlas Cross Sport, given the announcement earlier this month — at Volkswagen’s underutilized plant in Chattanooga, with very little retooling required. All of these things make the business case for a compact pickup — built in the U.S. by Volkswagen workers — that much easier to justify.

Volkswagen’s concept pickup isn’t the Amarok, the brand’s aging body-on-frame midsize pickup that competes elsewhere around the globe with vehicles such as the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux. The Amarok has long been forbidden fruit in the U.S. because of the “chicken tax” on pickups produced elsewhere and imported into the U.S. It just didn’t make any sense economically to bring here, and VW didn’t have a body-on-frame plant to build it in the NAFTA region, even if it wanted to.

Which brings us to the second proof point that’s really driving the brand’s pickup concept.

This concept is Volkswagen Group of America CEO Hinrich Woebcken’s baby, I’ve been told; a foundation stone in his plans to Americanize Volkswagen in the United States and turn the brand into a direct — if smaller — competitor with Ford, General Motors and FCA in the U.S. market.

That plan calls for Volkswagen to climb from its current 2 percent market share to a full 5 percent within ten years, a heavy lift in the best of circumstances for any automaker, but an extremely difficult task for Volkswagen, given the remnants of its diesel emissions violations and decades of meddling from Wolfsburg in deciding how best to run the U.S. market.

Anybody can use Google Translate to convert “Do what you think is best” into “Mach, was du für das Beste hältst.” I just don’t think either phrase has been used much in Volkswagen’s corporate headquarters in Wolfsburg, at least when it comes to its U.S. operations.

Bringing an MQB-based small unibody pickup to the U.S. — where it would square off most naturally against the Honda Ridgeline rather than the Ford Ranger or Chevrolet Colorado — would never be enough on its own for Volkswagen to gain 3 whole percentage points of market share in the U.S. But it would help.

And if it does end up making its way to U.S. dealerships, it would be proof positive that Wolfsburg — after blowing millions of euros and decades trying in vain to understand how to run the U.S. market from Germany — is ready to let somebody who can at least see the local road drive for a change.

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