VW Explores Vans and Pickups to Broaden U.S. Customer Appeal

The Volkswagen Microbus
A worker checks a Volkswagen AG camper van, or microbus, known as a "Kombi" in Brazil, on the assembly line at Volkswagen's Anchieta plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, in 2013. Photographer: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg

Volkswagen AG, which became part of U.S. pop culture with its bug-eyed Microbus, is looking at getting back into the U.S. van market.

The German company could also sell a pickup truck as it examines opportunities to broaden its range in North America, Eckhard Scholz, head of the light commercial vehicle unit, said at a press conference in Hanover on Wednesday.

“Pickup trucks are a dominating segment,” while there’s also a trend in the U.S. toward compact European vans, Scholz said. “We’re looking at both options intensively.”

Entering the U.S. light commercial vehicle market would complement Wolfsburg-based VW’s plan to become more than a niche manufacturer in the region and catch up with General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. Light trucks are helping drive U.S. sales at both companies, as cheaper gasoline has turned consumer tastes back toward big vehicles.

VW became the world’s second-largest automaker by gaining market share just about everywhere except the U.S., where it has struggled since losing its No. 1 spot in the imported-car market to Toyota in 1975. It still occupies significant cultural territory for a Baby Boomer generation that watched Herbie the anthropomorphic -- and self-driving -- Beetle in the 1968 Disney movie “The Love Bug” and saw the Bus build VW’s credentials among hippies and surfers.

Yet last year, when VW sold a record of more than 10 million vehicles around the world amid the strongest American car demand since 2006, VW-brand deliveries in the U.S. dropped 10 percent to 366,970 cars.

Thin Lineup

Part of the problem is a thin SUV lineup and the absence of a rival for Ford Motor Co.’s best-selling F-150. VW’s Amarok pickup truck, sold outside the U.S. where pickup trucks are less popular, is smaller than the Ford flagship.

In addition to the Amarok, VW’s light commercial vehicle division sells the Caddy, Crafter and T5 vans and minibuses. Western Europe accounted for 292,000 of the division’s 445,000 global vehicle sales last year. It also sells vehicles in eastern Europe, South America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Volkswagen is investing about $7 billion in North America after a previous effort to broaden its appeal with a bigger, cheaper version of the Passat sedan for the U.S. market lost steam. VW was slow to follow up with other new models after the Passat’s 2011 introduction.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE