At any big, flashy new car release, you expect to be accosted by public relations people all wearing name tags. “How do you like it?” they normally ask, or “Isn’t this exciting?” After I spent a few minutes milling around the entrance to the unveiling of the Volkswagen Passat last night, a security guard walked up to me. “Are you supposed to be here?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. In fact, I wasn’t sure any of us were supposed to be there.
Three weeks ago, the German car company invited us, and seemingly every other New York-based auto journalist, to the unveiling of the new 2016 Volkswagen Passat at a big warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was the same place where the Cadillac CT6 was unveiled, but unlike that party, none of us really wanted to go at the time. This is, after all, the Passat we’re talking about here, not the Bugatti Veyron successor.
One of us actually just wanted to reply to the invite with “thanks,” and a simple link to the much nicer European version of the car, which we had already seen a while ago.
But that was before we knew that Volkswagen had deceived regulators across the world and the car-buying public for years by rigging cars to massively cheat on emissions tests. Before we knew about the criminal and the Congressional investigations. Before we knew that a whole bunch of people were about to get fired. But the Passat reveal party had to move forward; like a wedding, it could not be canceled, because Aunt Mabel was flying in from Seattle and they already bought all the meat.
So in the end, instead of swarming with the place with the hard-nosed Jalopnik beat reporters that we regularly employ, I somehow drew the short straw. Despite our best last-minute efforts to get as many people into the party as possible, I would be the only one going from our team.
And in fairness to the security guard, at that exact moment I did look pretty out of place. Volkswagen had hired a bunch of water taxis to take the vast majority of the people from Battery Park to the Navy Yard. Most of the time, these things feel like the pre-game to a booze cruise. But I had a car, so I figured I’d just drive in, through the back entrance.
Through the back entrance, there were no other journalists. Just guys from local dealers, who laughed at random jokes but then seemed to go way too quickly back to very nervous faces.
But after a half hour of the event staff politely, but firmly denying my pleas to get beyond the entrance area and into the main event, Doug DeMuro finally showed up, and they finally let us in to the big room where the reveal party was located. (You’re probably wondering why Doug got in, even though I just said they weren’t letting any extra Jalops in. All I can say is that the Doug works in mysterious ways, but also occasionally does freelance for other publications.)
And it was a big room. A vast, empty room. Large enough to fit several elephants that no one from Volkswagen wanted to discuss at the moment.
There’s a weird feeling that you get when you’re at a party that’s highly inappropriate. No one throwing it really feels like celebrating much, and everyone sort of looks at the floor or pretends to be Very Busy with something. All the invited guests – in this case, the journalists – make horrible, dark jokes about what’s been going on. Maybe it should’ve been canceled, everyone thinks.
But it was not canceled, so everything just sort of goes on, without anyone acknowledging everything that’s happening. Which isn’t to say we didn’t try to acknowledge it. The PR folks were around, but they wouldn’t talk on the record.
We milled around for an hour or so, listlessly or boisterously depending on how much of the VW-supplied alcohol we’d gone for while black-shirted waiters and waitresses tried to offer us a constant stream of miniature crab cakes. They had the ostensibly mandatory televisions, displaying tweets with the ostensibly mandatory hashtag for the night. They didn’t post my tweets to the televisions, no matter how hard I tried.
It was lot emptier than I, and probably Volkswagen, expected. The room wasn’t getting any smaller, and it wasn’t filling up as fast as these things usually do. When there’s something to be celebrated, people like to celebrate. When the only thing being celebrated is a mid-cycle refresh, accompanied by a scandal of massive proportions, intention, and deceit, I guess people don’t really feel like showing up to celebrate.
I didn’t have any of the crab cakes.
After an hour of what felt like interminable mingling, Volkswagen USA CEO Michael Horn finally arrived. And, like any gracious and exuberant party host, he began by proclaiming his company’s own dishonesty, and proclaiming its mistakes:
“In my German words, we totally screwed up,” he said. A single person clapped.
To be honest, it was almost refreshing to hear this Reaganesque mea culpa. Though it was almost wholly unsatisfying in what wasn’t said. No questions were allowed, even though we were all wondering variations on similar themes. Who knew about this? When did they know about this? Surely you, personally, had to have known about this? Why did you do it? How could you think you wouldn’t get caught? How long did you think this would go on? Why didn’t one of your competitors, who buy up your cars to endlessly study them, X-ray them, take them apart and test them six ways to Sunday, blow the whistle in the supposedly “ruthless” automotive business?
We didn’t get any answers. Because in the world of Volkswagen, when you’re staring down the barrel of an investigatory gun but you’re still throwing one of the biggest parties in New York, we were “only here to talk about Passat.”
And once Horn was finished issuing his apologies, music started blaring and three Passats immediately rolled out. One white R-line, one silver example in a basic trim, and a blue diesel model.
Not much was said about the diesel.
We all performed the requisite kabuki of getting live photos of the cars, even though most of the writers there had already agreed to embargoes and had seen photos of the car hours ago, scheduling articles on it to go live even before Horn had finished reading off of the press release. The ritual continued unabated.
They left the cars out, rotating silently on three little stands. After the first 15 minutes, most stopped crawling all over a vehicle that was already too familiar. We had been told Lenny Kravitz was playing, and by then, when we realized none of our questions truly would be answered, and there was nothing of this car that was going to light our hair on fire, was the only reason for staying much longer.
After an hour, Lenny finally showed up. He brought the house down. He was a professional. He earned the money I’m sure he was paid. He shoved his guitar-crotch into the face of a poor model Volkswagen had paid to be there.
There weren’t a whole lot of Volkswagen supporters left in the big room. He didn’t say anything about what was happening.
Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that VW reps were talking to journalists, but not on the record.