I spent two very weird, chilly days in June at the Autostadt, a fake German village that combines factory life, Legoland, and the set of Woody Allen’s "Sleeper," all embossed with the Volkswagen logo. As recently as 15 years ago, the Autostadt was a massive slag heap cowering in the shadow of four enormous red-brick smokestacks, which towered above the scene like Mount Doom. Now, it’s all shire-like mounds of grass and flowers and spaceship pavillions celebrating the various brands of the Volkswagen empire. It’s a great place to spend 15 minutes if you happen to be passing through Wolfsburg on the way to anywhere else.
At the center of the Autostadt sits a 20-story glass cylinder full of cars, which constantly spins as robots move the vehicles to awaiting customers. This is where Germans come to pick up their new transport, or, as a somewhat creepy tour guide told us, “to celebrate the unique joys of family life.” There’s a weird car museum that doesn’t, to VW’s credit, contain all company products, and a Lamborghini that emerges from a smoky cage every hour on the hour. In many ways, you could imagine this landscape functioning, even thriving, without humans.
But, for the moment, people still make and design the machines. Volkswagen wanted to be sure we knew that. Part of our Autostadt education involved a “deep dive” about the company’s new Modular Transverse (or, in the more awesome German, Modularer Querbanbasten) kit. As a PR guy who looked a lot like "Mad Men’s" Bob Benson told us, “it’s very essential that you understand the changes that the modular transverse kit represents.”
The 10-cent version: Across its six major brands, Volkswagen vehicles will henceforth share 60 percent of their DNA. VW has standardized the powertrains, the HVAC units, the axles and the steering system. Audis and Porsches will get different kits, but with the same assembly concept. Time was when cars like the Golf and the Polo were put together differently. But now, 26 plants worldwide will follow the process of the “MQB kit," which VW vows will take mass production to a new level.
German Bob Benson told us that consumers can now choose all the important things that distinguish cars from one another — engine, transmission, amenity packages and the like — and get a vehicle customized to their needs more cheaply. “We’d rather make a Golf that is available with any kind of engine,” he said. “No matter what the customer decides, we’ll always have work at the factory.”
There was a brief revolt among the press corps, as we asked, well, what about a recall? If there’s a defect in the DNA of one vehicle, don’t you have to call back millions? Bob demurred, not to our satisfaction, though he did say “no one has a glass ball,” which made us snigger. Also, when we asked if other manufacturers were adopting this assembly kit strategy, he said yes, he thinks that they are years behind, “but you can’t look into their drawers.”
The next day, we got to drive one of the first MQB cars, the new GTD, a diesel version of the Golf that will hit European roads in the summer of 2014. The new platform gives it a more “muscular” appearance, at least according to the highly objective company flacks we talked to, with a shorter overhang and a longer wheelbase. It’s a nifty little envelope, a peppy version of an economy car that has no idea it’s essentially a clone.
The GTD comes with manual transmission or a DSG automatic. The EA288 diesel engine generates 184 hp, 280 lb.-ft. of torque, and a top speed of 143 mph. Of course, they told us, the “dual loop EGR system has a cooled low-pressure system on the exhaust side.” That should be of great interest to consumers.
When we met with VW, they said that bringing the GTD to North America was “under discussion,” but then initial reviews were good, so the discussion revealed that it would come here in 2015. It gets 56 mpg on the “European cycle,” which means in the U.S. will get about 44-45 mpg combined, which is pretty great for a sporty car that can do 3,000 RPMs at 118 mph.
We got to check out the GTD on a nice drive from the Autostadt to Berlin, a city that, unlike the Autostadt, contains people. The GTD, which has all the DNA of an ordinary car, is actually a very good one, because of the engine. Everyone loves a diesel, and with good reason; it makes driving fun for the efficient-minded driver. The GTD gripped the road with precision, light and powerful, like one of those Hex Bugs my child used to play with. The steering wheel seems taken from the Audi playbook, the brakes were efficient, and the interior felt plenty roomy. I sensed no hitch in the transmission. It was pretty fun, and really fuel efficient.
That said, the GTD comes in several modes, and Sport, by far the least economical, is also by far the best. Isn’t that always the way? Normal mode felt slightly sub-normal, and Comfort mode made the car feel almost collapsible and queasy-inducing. The Eco mode would be fine for city driving, but on the highway it was unspeakable, brutalizing the throttle response and making us scoot almost immediately into the right-hand land. A bicycle could have passed us.
While VW sells well more than 1 million Golfs worldwide every year, it's only shipped about 40,000 to the United States annually in recent years, and the GTD will be a small part of that total when it arrives. But it does represent something larger. If this is an example of what VW’s new “assembly kit” strategy can accomplish, then it’s not going to have very many skeptics. I don’t have a glass ball, but if I did, it would predict success — and doubt in others' drawers.