Now that September is in full force, we can take a moment to reminisce on August, which is yet another month when Volkswagen tried to make the Golf seem more successful than it really is.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I’m accusing Volkswagen’s public relations department of spinning the truth to make us believe the Golf is more popular than it really is. Actually, “spinning” is the wrong word. “Spinning” is what happens when you take some numbers and present them in a way that makes them fit your point of view. In this case, Volkswagen isn’t spinning. They’re one step away from creating a press release announcing that they did not have sexual relations with that woman.
But before I get into the wonderful details of this sordid tale, a little background information: in May 2015, Volkswagen changed the name of its popular Jetta SportWagen to the Golf SportWagen for the U.S. market. This is important, so I’m going to repeat it, even though this is the printed word and you can read it as many times as you like. In May 2015, Volkswagen changed the name of its popular Jetta SportWagen to the Golf SportWagen.
It’s a new car, redesigned to use Volkswagen’s “MQB” platform just like the Golf hatchback and unlike the Jetta. But in terms of dimensions, design, and market position, it is, for all practical purposes, merely a Jetta SportWagen with a new look and a new name.
So the stage is set: you have the “new” Golf Sportwagen, which is really just a revised Jetta Sportwagen with a new name, and you have the new Golf, which looks exactly like the old Golf to everyone except the guy who designed it.
So anyway: at the beginning of June, Volkswagen of America released its May sales figures like everyone does. And with these sales figures, they made a big announcement: the Golf delivered 6,308 units, or a 252 percent increase over last year. Two-hundred and fifty-two percent! In fact, it was the Golf’s best May in 15 years.
At Volkswagen’s U.S. headquarters in Virginia, trumpets blared. Marching bands played. Confetti fell from the ceiling. Unfortunately, no employees saw any of this, because they were all stuck in Beltway traffic.
What’s more, several major news outlets picked up on the resurgence of the Golf, from Business Insider to Automotive News. Volkswagen might be coming back, was the main point of view. And the Golf is responsible.
Except there was one little problem: Golf sales weren’t really that good. They were merely OK.
How do I reach this conclusion? Because Volkswagen only delivered 1,972 units of its traditional Golf hatchback in May - admittedly a huge increase over the previous year’s 685 sales, but one that’s entirely expected for a fully redesigned vehicle.
So how did they reach the 6,308-unit number that made all the papers? Because a full thirty percent of “Golf sales” were merely sales of a car that used to be a Jetta SportWagen. In other words: this amazing month of 6,300 Golf deliveries and a 252 percent sales increase wasn’t because of some incredible new product that people were fighting over at dealerships. A large portion of this figure was due to the fact they had simply renamed a vehicle.
Now, when I first saw this, I decided I would let it go and I wouldn’t write a column about it. Let Volkswagen have their day, I said to myself. God knows they need it. This was reinforced by the fact that Volkswagen still had Routan sales on the books through the entirety of 2014, even though the thing’s final model year was 2012.
But then Volkswagen released its June sales figures. And its July sales figures. And its August sales figures. And each time, they once again heralded the amazing sales performance of the great new Golf, savior of the Volkswagen brand. For proof, here are some actual quotes from the press June, July, and August press releases:
“We continue to see strong results from the Golf family, delivering the best June in 15 years,” said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer, Volkswagen of America.
“We are encouraged by the consistent sales growth for the Golf across all models within the family,” said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer, Volkswagen of America.
“We are encouraged by the continued strength of the Golf family and confident that success will continue with the model year 2016 vehicles,” said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer, Volkswagen of America.
Although I am hardly a highly skilled businessman, I believe there is one key message to be learned from these quotes: the success of the Golf has Volkswagen’s chief operating officer encouraged.
And that leads us right up to last month.
Last month, Volkswagen proudly announced – in the second bullet point of the news release where they revealed their sales figures – that the Golf had earned an 86.2 percent increase over August 2014. Autoblog picked up the story, noting that the Golf was dramatically outpacing the rest of the compact car segment. And I must admit, those numbers are pretty impressive: that long after a new car has debuted, you expect some increase, but not 86.2 percent. That new Golf must be pretty damn good to be pulling down those sales figures.
Except there’s a problem: the traditional Golf hatchback delivered only 1,873 units in August 2015, which works out to merely 100 units more than its August 2014 sales figure – an increase of less than 6 percent. So where does that 86.2 percent increase come from?
That’s right: the Jetta SportWagen, now renamed the Golf SportWagen, which delivered 2,478 units in August.
In fact, the Golf SportWagen accounted for more than 35 percent of all Golf sales in August 2015. If you take the Golf Sportwagen out of the equation, the Golf’s year over year increase drops from nearly 3,300 units (the 86.2 percent increase) to just 798 units – an increase of merely 20 percent. Not bad, but hardly worthy of repeated quotes where Volkswagen’s chief operating officer insists that he’s encouraged.
What’s more, that huge increase in Golf sales that so “encouraged” Volkswagen’s chief operating officer is precisely mirrored by a corresponding decline in Jetta sales thanks to the loss of the newly renamed SportWagen.
With the SportWagen now a Golf, Jetta sales dropped from 15,361 units in August 2014 to 11,112 units in August 2015 - a decline of 27 percent. Combine the Jetta (down 27 percent) and the Golf (“up” 86 percent) and you actually see a year-over-year decline of 973 sales, or around 5 percent. That isn’t quite so encouraging.
This proves something many of us have known all along: automotive sales are something of a shell game; more about presentation and spin than the actual numbers. Who knows: if you redesign a car, give it a new name, and announce sales are up, you might be able to create the illusion of success that isn’t there.
And we’re not done yet. Here’s the kicker: in August, the most recent month where Volkswagen insisted its sales resurgence was being led by the mighty Golf, the brand’s total sales were actually falling. Volkswagen delivered only 32,331 cars in August 2015, compared to 35,181 cars in August 2014, for a decrease of more than 8 percent. They’re even down year-to-date, in spite of all those extra “Golf” sales, delivering 238,074 vehicles through the first eight months of 2015, versus 244,878 vehicles at this point last year.
Fortunately, I know of one surefire way Volkswagen can turn around that sales decline: they can take the Audi A4 and rename it the Volkswagen Passat Deluxe. This will result in an immediate 200 percent increase in Volkswagen Passat sales, which I have no doubt that the chief operating officer will find encouraging.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.