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The Secret Weapon Driving Volkswagen’s Hybrid Compact Coupe? Das CEO

With a new hybrid car and a new ad campaign, Volkswagen is gearing up to take over America. Can they get there from here?

The Secret Weapon Driving Volkswagen’s Hybrid Compact Coupe? Das CEO
VW New Compact Coupe

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Volkswagen is starting 2010 in the fast lane. Moments ago at the Detroit Auto Show, it announced a new concept car, a snappy looking coupe with a hybrid engine called the New Compact Coupe. It’s a hybrid on many levels–the company describes it as positioned somewhere between the Scirocco, Europe’s best selling sports car, and the CC, which is available in the States. Let the gearhead boasting begin: The company says the car can get 45 mpg, with CO2 emissions of 98 g/km, and attain a top speed of 141 mph. (For those more interested in interior stylings, the car comes with light-colored “Berry White” leather. Insert “Love Unlimited” jokes here.)

What a difference a year makes.

VW New Compact Coupe

Last year Volkswagen leapfrogged from the No. 3 spot in worldwide car sales to No. 1–an uncertain perch–due in part to its recent combination with Porsche and to European cash-for-clunkers stimulus programs. In Europe, the company reigns supreme. But to hold on to its global leadership, and to make it real, VW needs to win over America. They’ve got their work cut out for them. They now have only 2.9% of the U.S. market share, down from 7% during its Beetle heyday in the 1970s. Hyundai’s market share is 4.3%, with a bullet.

VW New Compact Coupe

Product and marketing aside, their not so secret weapon is the charismatic Stefan Jacoby, the CEO of Volkswagen America, and the subject of a lengthy Fast Company profile that will be published on Fast Company later this week. (The story took me all the way to Wolfsburg, Germany, Volkswagen’s headquarters.) Since arriving in the U.S. in 2007, Jacoby has crisscrossed the company visiting disgruntled dealers, and learning what the U.S. consumer expects from the German automaker.

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He has also spearheaded some very big decisions, moving corporate headquarters out of Detroit to Virginia, breaking ground on a $1 billion green and modern manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and ditching ad agency Crispin Porter last summer. Again, they’re moving fast–today company also announced its first 30-second Super Bowl commercial in nine years. The spot, which will appear during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIV will be the first work created for Volkswagen by its new creative agency, Deutsch LA. (The tagline “Das Auto” will survive. The quirky pitchbug “Max the Beetle” will not.) In a major nod to their dealer network, a two-month promotional push will follow the new spot, hitting television, online, radio, outdoor, newspaper and social media.

VW New Compact Coupe

The new products, ad campaign, and the manufacturing facility are all designed to get to one very big number. Jacoby announced in August that the company was committing to selling 800,000 units a year by 2018. It would be a nearly 300% increase from just under 300,000 in 2009, a number that raises eyebrows among auto analysts. “The vision is being a truly American company here in the U.S.,” Jacoby told me. “It is the global strategy of VW and VW group to really grow and to be the number one in the world. And the U.S. is one puzzle piece for that growth.”

VW New Compact Coupe

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