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15 October 2008

The world economy may be in turmoil, though at the Paris Auto Show last week, the Volkswagen Group still seemed immune. While other companies shares have fallen to Extra Value Meal prices, VLKAY (the Volkswagen Group’s share I.D.) continues to climb. And while other manufacturers slapped green-themed decals on existing models to promote environmental awareness, the Volkswagen Group continued its multi-faceted model-driven strategy in Paris.

That it was also fashion week in the French metropolis seemed lost on some. The number of bullish concepts with bold new design seemed decidedly down. If you happened into the ‘Night of Driving Ideas’ presentation of Volkswagens though, or strolled through one of the groups numerous stands it seems clear that, at least for now, none of the Wolfsburg-owned brands has lost their cadence.

Volkswagen

The big news at the VW stand was of course the new Golf VI and Golf VI GTI. While a new Golf is always a significant mark in VW time, the new GTI is what we really wanted to see and VW didn’t disappoint. Volkswagen had red, white and blue GTI models on display in both two-door and four-door configurations at Paris. We spent some time looking the new model over and discovered a few interesting observations.

On the exterior, the new GTI has a completely different front bumper and grill. The grill has the same honeycomb pattern found on the Golf V GTI, however it is no longer matte plastic, but painted black with clear coat. Because the new front grill is rectangular in shape, the signature red stripe now follows the square outline of the grill similar to the original Golf I GTI. HID headlamps are optional on German-spec GTI models and they look great with lots of sculpted detail giving them a machined look behind the glass. Overall the front end is much cleaner looking than the Golf V GTI and better integrated as a whole into the shape and design of the car.

The side skirts aren’t actually side skirts. The lower rocker panels on the Golf VI don’t have the crinkle/orange-peel looking paint finish that the Golf V had, so what appears to be an integrated side skirt with a black insert is actually just the black insert stuck onto the side of the car and it works. Likewise with the rear bumper – the rear bumper itself is the same on both the regular Golf VI and Golf VI GTI. The GTI instead has a different lower valance attached to the bumper with a black diffuser and dual rear exhaust outlets. The good news is that regular Golf VI owners could integrate some of these pieces fairly easily without having to purchase all-new side skirts or a complete rear bumper. The dual exhaust will be a little trickier but someone in the aftermarket will step up and offer a solution.

We spent some time sitting in the interior of the new car and VW has really stepped things up on the new model. The soft-touch surfaces more common in the Golf IV are back. The top of the dash is downright squishy and nearly everything you touch has a more substantial feel to it. The new GTI steering wheel has an amazing amount of detail and a quality machined feel to it. Brushed aluminum bright-work and stitched leather together with the now-signature flat-bottomed, thick steering wheel make this one of the best steering wheels around.

The Golf VI GTI has a new plaid cloth pattern that is a little less subtle (if you could call the old “Interlagos plaid” subtle) than the outgoing plaid. Whether the plaid cloth is your thing or not is up to you, however the seats themselves feel great with additional padding in the right places and bolsters that hold you in nicely. A new shift-knob with a translucent red trim piece that appears to glow has replaced the last version. Door and dash trim is not carbon fiber as it looks in photos, but a black plastic with very thin silver lines inset in enough epoxy-like finish to make it look like a far richer surface than it really is – we like it.

We had a chance to corner the designers that worked on the Golf VI GTI and asked about the decision to use the same wheel design offered on the Golf V – particularly when this is supposed to be an all-new model. Apparently a number of different designs were looked at but no one agreed completely and in the end Dr. Winterkorn made the final decision. The Huffmeister wheel is a quality piece using BBS’s patented hollow spoke manufacturing process and hard to beat as a factory OEM wheel. While we would have liked to see something new, VW is hinting there will be some other options available by the time the new GTI comes to the U.S. in August/September of 2009.

Elsewhere on the VW stand were a number of new TDI offerings, most notably the Passat BlueTDI and Passat BlueMotion. The Passat BlueTDI will be available 1st quarter of next year in Europe and will meet Europe’s very strict Euro-6 emissions which don’t technically go into effect till 2014. Powered by a revised version of the same 2.0 four-cylinder TDI, power is up slightly to 143hp with fuel consumption in the Passat sedan rated at 45 mpg. To meet new EU-6 emissions, an additional catalytic converter is necessary as well as AdBlue injection.The Passat BlueMotion uses a 110hp common-rail diesel with a 48 mpg rating and more importantly for Europe, CO2 emissions at a low 128 g/km. There are no current plans to offer either Passat diesel models in the U.S. at this point.

The Phaeton gets the newer 3.6l VR6 with FSI and 280hp along with a revised center console with VW’s newest RCD/RCN 810 touch-screen navigation system and optional DynAudio, new wheel designs, new interior and exterior colors, a revised grill, new interior lighting color (white instead of red), a new key, backup camera and more.

Lastly VW had a new Touareg “North Sails” special model “customized for the yachting enthusiast”, according to the press material. Essentially this means a white exterior with the VW Individual body kit, special wheels, white leather trim on the interior and a few other odds and ends. Maybe the yacht tie-in has to do with the weight of the Touareg being similar? We kid…

Volkswagen Commercial

Volkswagen’s commercial truck group showed a pretty slick AWD version of the Caddy that could actually make for a cool, cheap lifestyle vehicle. Sporting huge tires, higher ride height and a Haldex all-wheel drive system, the overall look gives the Caddy a much-needed makeover. Given that current exchange rates, we’re unlikely to see this model offered here in the States, but nothing is out of the question right now.

We had a chance to sit down with VWoA’s current leader Stefan Jacoby at dinner and chat about new product. He asked gathered journalists what they thought of VWoA offering the Scirocco in the U.S. market and implied that it is now back in the running to be offered here. No final decisions have been made yet, but the Scirocco would likely be offered with a higher output 2.0T (think 265hp or so), well equipped but front-wheel-drive only (as the Portugal factory can’t support 4motion). Pricing and positioning will be tough though, as VW can’t position it too close to the GTI but but at the same time has to be very careful with the pricetag as competition in that segment is fierce.

Jacoby also mentioned that a potential TDI performance hatchback offering a diesel powerplant with GTI suspension would be a cool potential proposition. We also asked why there has never been a Jetta “R” model and he agreed that something like that would also be very interesting. When we pushed him on the rumored mid-engine rear-wheel-drive two-seat roadster, he just said he didn’t know what we were talking about (with a bit of a thin smile we might add).

We did bring up this whole thing about VW competing with Toyota and mentioned that it doesn’t go over well here in America – particularly with VW owners as they don’t want a Toyota (or they would have bought one to start with). Jacoby agrees and mentioned that VWAG will always try and increase global sales and Toyota’s volume is a good number to shoot for. Here in America though Jacoby admits there is much work to do, but tells us that we need to assure existing VW owners that Volkswagen’s will still ride and drive like a European/German car should. He also points out that if they do their homework properly, they will match Toyota for quality as well.

Stefan Jacoby has been at the helm for a little over a year and tremendous amount of change has already occurred at VW with a massive overhaul of corporate structure, a new U.S. plant announcement, all-new product in segments where VW was absent and more. Right now a wide variety of products are being considered and worked on for the U.S. market. The product planning group at VWoA has their hands very full right now, but we think that enthusiasts will be interested in what the future has in store.

Audi

Audi’s exposure in France was three-pronged, picking the show as the place to launch the all-new Audi S4, to debut the A1 Sportback design study and to pull the wraps off of a future 2.0-liter TDI engine that is good for 58.95 mpg. The theme here is clear. Audi plans to keep expanding the lineup, but with a heavy emphasis on efficiency.

Audi S4

The most anticipated Audi debut was that of the new S4. Audi is going back to its roots of forced induction (turbos in the ‘80s and ‘90s and even superchargers in the Silver Arrow era) with a new, supercharged 3.0T S4. Though we’re told a twin turbocharged 3.0T was developed alongside, the S4’s production engine uses an Eaton supercharger to develop 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque and net the car a reported 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds.

Volkswagen Group powertrain czar Wolfgang Hatz explained that they originally intended to use turbos, but he approved a team who wanted to develop a supercharged application. Both configurations were explored, but the immediacy of torque (and no doubt fuel economy with a supercharged six-cylinder suited the daily driver performance nature of Audi’s S-range. Hatz tells us that this won’t be the last we’ll see of turbos at Audi, rather a turbo application is something we’ll more likely see in an ultimate performance application…. RS 7 perhaps?

Two production-looking S4s were on display. The first was a red sedan featured a silver/black leather interior combo and brushed aluminum trim. The second, a white Avant, sported a red/black leather combo and carbon-fiber trim framed in aluminum as is currently available in the S5.

Audi A1 Sportback Concept

We’re guessing this latest concept from Audi is more indicative of how a production A1 model will look when it debuts in the not-too-distant future. Elements like the car’s split opening hatchback are likely a concept-only affair, but we’re hoping design like the trick Audi devil eyes/ turnsignals at the front and, more importantly, the 1.4 TFSI hybrid drivetrain make it to production.

We’re particularly interested in the engine. The 1.4 TFSI alone is good for 150 hp, but this latest hybrid solution adds another 27 hp and 110 lb-ft of torque for performance… or the car can drive on electric power alone in local commuting. Even on full-electrics, the car’s lithium ion batteries give it a range of 62 miles without firing up the engine.

One of the most distinctive elements of the latest A1 concept’s design is the clear moulded shield element over top the trademark Audi grille. We inquired with Audi designers about it and were told it was an element that both communicates and achieves higher efficiency. The piece makes what is traditionally a large intake hole and changes the air flow to make it more channeled while lessening drag.

As for potential of the A1’s sale in the United States, Audi won’t confirm it… yet they won’t deny it either. One Audi insider commented that the potential is there if the American market shows an appetite for this type of small offering. “First,” our contact stated, “we need to get the A3 in order.” That’ll mean getting sales higher, which doesn’t seem terribly outlandish since there’s a traditional 4-door A3 in the works and the company could likely build the thing in the Volkswagen Group’s plant that’s being built in Tennessee, thus bringing costs into line.

Audi A4 2.0 TDIe Concept

You’d be foregiven for walking right past the Audi A4 2.0 TDIe concept car in Paris. The story behind this concept is the engine itself. Audi has thrown every trick in the book at this 2.0 TDI in order to make it more efficient – less friction from switchable components like oil pump, a heat exchanger for air conditioning and even new piston rings to lower tangential forces… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Smallish (and likely very light) wheels on a very average looking B8 A4 doesn’t stand out like say an S4 or a nearby RS 6 and the study wasn’t heavily stickered up. However, it was the very pedestrian nature of the car that is ultimately what is so interesting. Foregoing fitting the ultra-efficient engine into a swoopy and far-from-production concept car, Audi went with their top-selling A4 sedan. The result looks just like a car you can buy today, but nets a hair shy of 60 mpg. You might miss seeing it, but it’s hard to miss the significance of this new engine tech.

Other Audi News

On the Audi show stand, there were several more cars on display that would qualify as significant others. A white Audi Q7 S-line sported full graphics from the currently-running Audi Mileage Marathon – a cross-country sojourn in the United States to promote diesel technology. Audi’s 2008 24-Hours of Le Mans winning R10 was on display, complete with the thick layer of oil and grime that it gathered up racing through the early and wet hours of the French enduro last June.

A sharp eye in the Audi stand may have also caught full LED taillights fitted to the lone S5 on the floor… lights just like those on the new S4. This is a new feature that we’re told is just going into production now. American cars will get the LED taillights at the 2010 model year changeover along with other improvements like the new 3G MMI.

Above the Audi stand, a small meeting room also contained a unique R8 built by Audi Exclusive. The car’s color was Audi’s almost white metallic Suzuka Grey and the car featured a side blade, exterior mirrors, chin spoiler and rear DTM-style splitter all made of carbon fiber. Inside was a mix of carbon fiber, black leather and white stitching.

Bentley

News at Bentley focused on the GT Speed level of performance and trim widening its presence in the Continental range. As expected, the boys from Crewe applied the more potent mill and duds to the Flying Spur sedan. The move was hardly groundbreaking, but it knocked the traditional Flying Spur down to ‘Second Fastest Sedan in the World’.

Bugatti

First shown at August’s Pebble Beach Concours, Bugatti based its Paris news on the new open-top Veyron Grand Sport. The fabled French marque plans a build of only 150 of the topless Veyron with 50 of them reserved for existing Bugatti clientele. You can’t store the removable top in the car, but Bugatti staff were quick to show the folding umbrella-like emergency top for when you get caught away from home in the rain.

Lamborghini

Center stage at Lamborghini was the Estoque concept car. Lambo’s first stab at a four-door since the 1987 Portofino design study built under Chrysler ownership, the new sedan skips the kitschy dual lambo-style-doors of the Portofino and makes for a bullish attempt at the four-door coupe segment. The design is pure Lamborghini, with literally tons of angular lines throughout, giving a nod to the limited edition Reventon supercar, particularly up front. At the rear though the rear haunches and rear tailamps give the car more than a hint of American muscle-car (Challenger/Camaro) physique. At the show reaction to the design was very much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. This is one concept that only Lamborghini could pull off.

Named for the rapier-style sword used by Spanish bull fighters, the Estoque features a ‘front mid-engine’ chassis with permanent all-wheel drive. It is powered by the same updated V10 as is found in the Gallardo LP560-4. One wonders how much of the upcoming Audi A7 4-door coupe lies beneath the Estoque.

Long-time Lamborghini enthusiasts like us may have preferred a wagon-back modern day Espada or even an all-terrain LM002, but one could argue that Lamborghini seldom looks backwards as it plots its course. Looking into the rearview mirror is for other brands – Lamborghini seems all about the here, now and next.

SEAT

The Spanish subsidiary at the Volkswagen Group is set for conservative expansion. In Paris, this meant showing off the new Ibiza Cupra, and also its latest offering – the Exeo sedan. In order to cost-effectively take SEAT into the popular B-segment, the outgoing B7-generation Audi A4 production line was picked up and shipped off to SEAT lock, stock and barrel. You’ll note soft points have changed at the front and rear and new door-mounted rearview mirrors also differentiate, but this is still quite obviously the last-generation A4… not that that’s a bad thing.

Badge engineering critics will clamor, but we actually think it’s a smart move and a level of recycling that some may even applaud. Regardless, it’s a savvy business move. By using the older platform and production tools, VAG saves a lot of money and is able to put the car profitably into dealers in an effort to shore up the SEAT line and the B7 was a strong offering.

You may already know that this sort of maneuver is not a new one at the Volkswagen Group. The B2-based Volkswagen Santana went on for years in both Brazil and China, while the C3 Audi 200 platform is still produced by FAW in China as the FAW Hongqui.

Back to the Exeo, the interior is virtually unchanged. B7 owners looking for rare partsbin modifications for their cars may find some interest in the SEAT’s crafty use of the A4 Cabriolet’s dash top segment with its round vents… makes for a subtle difference. The SEAT also gets a bespoke shift knob, trim surfaces and stitch patterns on the seats.

A wagon version of the Exeo is expected and both are expected to offer smaller displacement engine offerings from the Volkswagen Group. Given the expected price point well-below the Audi A4, don’t expect high-dollar variants like a cabriolet or the V8-fitted version as seen with the S4.

Skoda

It might get lost amidst the sporting or overtly green offerings in Paris, but a freshened Octavia at Skoda is nothing to sneeze at. The Octavia sedan is the Czech marque’s top seller and it gets similar updates as the new sixth-generation Golf whose chassis it shares.

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