[Badge] Engineering Failure: VW

I realise it’s an old and oft-discussed issue, but I have experienced VW shooting itself in the badge.

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I was recently loaned a brand new VW Golf Estate for the day whilst my Octavia of similar form was in for its 10k oil-change. I have frequently read over the past few years how the differential between VW Group’s brands has blurred, but this is the first time I was presented with an opportunity to witness the phenomenon so directly. And, although I should not have been, I was a bit taken aback at the experience.

I’ve always kept the view that the Golf is a bit special. A cut above. Very cleverly set aside from the Leon and Octavia, just nuzzling beneath the A3 in the perceived quality stakes, and with an additional layer of warmth compared to its Audi cousin. What was I on?  Could I really have fallen for the marketing guff so completely? Like, OMG, I really am a gullible, naïve, idiot.  Shoot me, now!

First, I am not even sure if, in Estate form, the Golf is a nicer looking car than the Octavia (Skoda has generously done its best to improve the situation in favour of the Golf by giving the face-lifted Octavia a really clunky new headlight arrangement). Second, the Octavia is huge inside (and outside, to be fair) compared to the Golf – more akin to the Passat than the more compact VW.

Third – and critically – such is the uniformity of the components used across the two cars, it’s really, really hard to discern even detailed differences. In past versions of the two cars, the stuff one touched, felt and could see on the surface was evidently different and differentiated in terms of visual and tactile quality. This is not the case in the current versions.

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Sitting in the driving seat of the Golf with the car static, so many aspects of the car look and feel the same as the Octavia. It’s evident to anyone with any spark of curiosity that the platform ‘matrix’ of components and the structural framework in which they sit are the same; typefaces differ, certain graphics too (most notably the way the numbers on the tacho and speedo radiate out from the centre on the Octavia vs. them being kept on the horizontal axis in the Golf), but it’s really only the most pedantic minded of differentiation.

Material quality is the same – I am convinced that anyone feeling that the Golf is superior has been placebo’d by brand-prejudice. Door card design and quality, flock-lined door bins, etc., all present and correct … and shared. The positioning of the electric door mirror controls is less ergonomic on the Golf than the Octavia. The Octavia still has a manual handbrake rather than the Golf’s electric job.

I like the way the Golf’s dash wraps around, with the centre-stack angled towards the driver in the manner of a 90’s BMW, although the main-event of that stack, the 8″ infotainment screen is a facsimile of that in the Octavia.

Details, details – the two cars trade them self-consciously. One can almost envisage the two, meticulously differentiated, brand mood-boards in front of the designers as they picked how and where to create minor differences.  Hence, much as I like the umbrella and ice-scraper so thoughtfully provided by Skoda with their own specifically designed storage cubbies, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been played to register them as ‘Simply Clever’ touches.

Drive the cars and it’s the same. The Octavia feels bigger and so slightly less wieldy, but otherwise, everything is identical give or take the odd margin that is so marginal that it’s impossible for any bar the most ardent of car-nerds (as my son and daughter often refer to me) to tell. Gearchanges? Snap!  Steering feel? Snap!  Throttle response? Snap!  Seat comfort? – advantage Octavia as it has better side support and a standard lumbar support adjuster (they are very comfortable seats). It’s possible the Golf is a little quieter. OK, so point made.

 

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And … so what? We’ve known for a good few generations now that they are ‘on the same [MQB] platform’ and that there’s not a lot of difference. The thing is that the design of the Skoda is no longer ‘a bit quirky/ ugly’ (that nose-job aside), the build and material quality inside and out is now identical – change the badges and you would be none the wiser – and, the driving experience of both cars is similarly similar.

I’m not going to argue that the Octavia is better than the Golf (that’s not the point I want to make), although I have read a number of magazine test comparisons that do. More broadly, the Kodiaq seems to have gained wider critical favour than the Tiguan, the Karoq than the T-Roc, the Superb than the Passat …  Even more broadly, every UK test of the new Polo I have read places it in a marginally inferior light to the latest Ibiza.

In mitigation, the pricing differential across these three badges has also blurred to the extent that it’s hard to tell which is supposed to be ‘premium’, so maybe VW Group does not care about this obfuscation of its brand portfolio strategy. As a counter to that counter, on that basis, you’d have to be truly deluded or just prejudiced to buy an Audi A3 over a Skoda Octavia, or an A1 over an Ibiza, as the price differential there really is significant.

Moreover, even if margins on a Skoda are now as healthy as they are on a VW (and, therefore, in theory VW Group management is indifferent as to which brand is selling more than the others), if I was the Chairperson of VW Group, I’d want to understand how much it was costing to sustain the different brands in the current format and whether it continues to represent good value for the shareholders. Finally, as a consumer – and car nerd/ lover – it’s confirmation that real choice has rapidly diminishing dimensions in the new car market.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

20 thoughts on “[Badge] Engineering Failure: VW”

  1. Skoda was using a different scale for its own cars – so the Fabia was an unusually spacious supermini, the Octavia sat between the Focus and Mondeo, and the Superb offered E-class levels of accommodation for a much lower price. This was a key differentiator.

    At least Octavia and Golf are both very good, so in a sense the customer wins whichever model they choose. We should be glad they are still on sale, given that everyone seems to want an SUV these days.

    1. True, very true – I have to say both cars are surprisingly good to drive with almost every aspect thoroughly developed and executed. I feel the odd twinge of frustration at the way that VW controls the rear suspension lay-outs that each model can have at different engine and trim levels. It’s a detail that most drivers won’t notice, or care about, but every time the Octavia’s rear gives a little sideways hop as it traverses a bump or ridge as it goes around a corner, I’m reminded of the few extra beans that VW extracted from me by insisting that Skoda was only allowed to offer fully IRS on models with greater than 150PS.

  2. The days of ‘too good for their own good’ Skodas are over. I fully expect future Skodas to be intentionally less appealing than their VW counterparts, in terms of style, perceived quality and creature comforts.

    The first point has, to a point, already been addressed, as Jozef Kaban has so conveniently been poached to Munich. I have little knowledge of the man and don’t mean any disrespect, but I don’t believe his successor, Oliver Stefani, will (be allowed to) act as a ‘maverick’ in the same way Kaban did. The next Superb in particular shall therefore not trample all over the Audi A4 anymore.

    And while we may moan the end of Czech ambition, there’s little arguing about the sense behind reigning Skoda in, as the VAG brethren brands have simply failed to up their game in accordance with the Czechs. The only current Skoda that truly is ‘the poor relation’ is the Citigo, which one would only ever get if it came about with a healthy price reduction, in comparison with the substantially more attractive VW Up.

    1. I agree, absolutely. I think I’d even forgotten about the the Citigo. The big disappointment for me, competent though its replacement seems, is the demise of the Yeti; it was just such a well conceived and executed concept in that it clearly fitted into a broad social span of people’s lives and delivered a dose of character at the same time. The Karoq is just another faux-SUV in comparison, with some of its twin’s elan dialled-out and a bit of addedd practicality added back in to fit with that brand mood-board.

    2. The Yeti wasn’t well-received in certain markets, though it was highly successful in others. The Kodiak & Karoq are cut from a very different cloth, also due to the fact that one of them (I cannot remember who one’s which – great branding in action there!) has to act as the basis of the Seat Ateca, which is built on the same production line.

      I’d go as far as claiming that the Yeti was the most successful Skoda design penned under Thomas Ingenlath. It was characterful, but not as quirky as to alienate (like the Roomster, which I personally like a lot), and among the few relatively recent SUVs that did without any kind of menace. And on top of that, its designer, Karl Neuhold, is a genuinely pleasant chap.

    3. Again, agree with you. I also like the more off-beat Roomster and it was on the list of possibles of Xsara Picasso replacements in the Robinson household (that prize going to the Octavia, ultimately). Unfortunately, people fell completely out of love with slightly odd-ball (or even fiercely conventional) MPVs, even if they actually do the practicalities of the job better than the equivalent SUV-alike thing (note the C3 Picasso is, to my eyes and mind, a far more fit for purpose and likable car than the C3 Aircross that replaced it; I also prefer the Venga to the Stonic, for example). I see that Skoda retained the Varioflex rear seating arrangement for the Karoq as a key differentiator over its VW Group brethren (Ateca being the one with which it shares so much content and structure).

  3. The elephant in the room is the cost of labour in Germany which is about 30% higher than in the other countries. Considering Ingolstadt is the birthplace of VW itself, it’s simply impossible for political reasons to move production out of there. VW have now proved they can build cars anywhere with the same quality, they have to rely in brand differentiation alone. And an Audi, Porsche, or VW buyer don’t care what they drive as long as they can be seen by other people driving it. There are now more Porsche Cayennes on the road than fifty years total production of 911’s.

    1. There has been a bit of labour unrest at Mlada Boleslav last year, so in that respect, the gap is getting ever narrower.

    2. On the other hand, the other elephant in the room is the efficiency of German labour. I remember a Ford chap telling me that the productivity of the Merkenich workforce more than offset the cheapness of the other locations they could have chose for the Fiesta.

  4. A taxi experience the other day: I sat in a new Skoda Superb. There is nothing visible in the car to say you have been given an inferior car. Sure, the Passat will seem even nicer. Both cars are nice: nice and very nice. I mean that negative reasons for avoiding a Skoda are long gong. There is no evidence any of it anything less than very acceptable. That makes choosing the Skoda an easier decision to make.

  5. VW might be geographically Saxon, but it’s distinctly Hapsburg Empire in its origins.

    Founded by an Austrian, its seminal product engineered by an Austro-Hungarian engineer born in what is now the Czech Republic (or Czechia if you insist…), but inspired by the work of another Austro-Hungarian working in another part of the Czech Republic, and a Prague-based Hungarian aerodynamicist.

    And Ingvar, was Ingolstadt really the birthplace of VW? I’d say the birthplace of the modern VW was the Heilbronn / Neckarsulm conurbation, with one eye firmly pointed in the direction of Turin.

    1. It’s just an interesting notion the Beetle didn’t really have any intrinsic qualities making it the best selling car in the world, what made it a best seller was that Heinz Nordhoff was given the largest manufacturing plant in the world outside Detroit, with a capacity of building a million cars per year from one single factory line. Perhaps Ingolstadt isn’t the birthplace but it is the cradle where the goose laid its golden eggs. I mean the very success of Volkswagen as a company is built entirely upon that factory, and it being there and not anywhere else. Har it been somewhere else it had been someone else success with a completely different car and another outcome of history.

    2. The birthplace of VW of course is (Lower Saxonian) Wolfsburg, which geographically and mentally couldn’t be farther from (Bavarian) Ingolstadt. When the VW Beetle was still the KdF-Wagen, Wolfsburg was a synthetical city created in the middle of nowhere in a large swamp area and was officially called the “Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben” (city of the KdF car close to Fallersleben) because its only purpose was to be home to the factory.

      The Wolfsburg factory was tailor made for production of the Beetle, which led to the Golf Mk1 having a body structure that allowed the same production processes and welding sequences as the Beetle’s (body manufacturing started with welding the roof and rear side panels together and working forward from there).
      Ingolstadt can be considered modern VW’s mental and technical home as VW’s restart from the brink of bankruptcy in the Seventies was based on Ingolstadt’s products like the Audi 80 Mk1 and EA827 engine familiy.

  6. S.V, that’s an enlightening ant thorough report of the present state of play at German BMC. (I fear they may yet swallow FCA and become full Global Leyland).

    Kris is probably right that Skoda will go a bit more ‘Dacia’, it’s logical to put more distance between the brands, but VAG often make costly decisions which defy logic. Remember that in the days of the first VW-era Octavia the talk was of an “affordable premium” position comparable to Rover and the smaller Volvos.

    I’m interested to find out that the Octavia has a mechanical handbrake, whereas the Golf has an electric one. I regard the latter as The Work of the Devil. It’s partly down to the other purposes the one-end brake can serve other than keeping a vehicle in place when stationary, but mainly down to an aversion to leaving a car restrained by the parking brake for any length of time. Any switch-operated parking brake I’ve encountered gives no option – it will apply itself without a by-your-leave when the key is removed. Rather than stretch cables and risk seized pads or shoes I make a point of parking on level ground in park or first, parking brake unapplied. I suspect I may be in a minority in this matter.

    1. Robertas: Not so solitary. I have long adhered to this maxim, and now that I drive an elderly Saab, I have absolutely no necessity to engage the handbrake once the vehicle is switched off, since the 900 locks in reverse gear. Mind you, this has its downsides – the holy mortifying shame of driving somebody’s pride and joy for some considerable time last year with the handbrake fully engaged is one I won’t forget in a hurry. I distrust electric parking brakes – perhaps irrationally, and I suspect that one day one of them will leave me stranded.

      Returning to the subject of Skoda, I’d be inclined to get ’em while they’re hot because they are unlikely to continue being as stylistically accomplished as they currently are. A recent trip in the back of a current Octavia was quite illuminating. Slightly brittle ride quality aside, one couldn’t ascertain whether one was travelling in a product of Wolfsburg, Ingolstadt or indeed, Stuttgart- Unterturkheim. One can of course from the outside, but only to their German rival’s detriment.

      In fact, so assured has Skoda design become under the recently departed Jozef Kaban, that it puts me in mind of the VA-HH era at Mercedes. It is genuinely that good. For now at least. VAG’s loss may well be BMW’s gain – if and only if the Petuelring management realise (a) what they have got and (b) allow him (and his boss) the freedom to do what they’re undoubtedly capable of. Of which there’s no guarantee.

    2. Robertas, I too recall that early statement of intent to make Skoda an affordable premium brand to rival the market positioning of Rover and Volvo (at that time). My view is that the Czech marque has pretty well achieved that (I have Volvo more in mind than Rover when making that statement – it builds very practical cars with little-nonsense designs, that are safe and robust. Of course, Volvo has since moved on somewhat and is now producing slightly self-conscious and self-possessed designs which play to international notions of Swedish-ness. On reflection, this is not too different a destination to where BMW took Rover (a kind of pastiche of Britishness), albeit the outcome for Volvo is thankfully a lot more ‘cool’ than the look achieved by Rover, mainly because the latter took on a retro-view of its national characteristics, whereas Volvo is riding high with a clear-cut, modern treatment. Returning to the Skoda/ Volvo comparison for a moment longer, the Octavia estate claims a larger luggage area than the Volvo V90, and has a more practical profile to the rear hatch. Volvo seems happy to sacrifice substance to style, something which extends to the dash design too; Skoda interior designed is clearly meant to be the most ‘practical’ and style-conscious free in the VW portfolio, and hence it’s a bit ‘cold’ and stark … and straightforward … like a Volvo used to be.

    3. S.V., another similarity is that Thomas Ingenlath, the man credited with the style of the Geely-era Volvos so far, used to be in charge of Skoda design. Not only, but also due to this fact I’d argue that both carmakers are catering to a similar clientele, with Skoda occupying the ‘lower’/less pretentious/less style-conscious end of that market. Still, neither manufacturer caters for the kind of which Mercedes has become the prime purveyor in recent years, with both eschewing overly vulgar stylistic tropes.

  7. On the subject of the Golf’s apparent superiority, I recently drove an (admittedly fairly low-spec) three door example. The first Golf I have actually piloted since 1989. It was quite pleasant (absurdly narrow power band and unsettled ride apart) but I really couldn’t for the life of me see why one would choose it over its rivals. Okay its exterior looks better resolved than many of its overstyled fellow-combatants, but it simply doesn’t exude the overall sense of palpable superiority its mighty reputation suggests.

    On balance, I’d suggest it’s a car one buys on the reassurance of the nameplate and because perhaps a Golf in its relatively unchanging appearance from generation to generation offers a measure of reassurance in a World of increasing uncertainty and flux.

    Or on the other hand, maybe I’m overthinking matters and we’re simply dealing with a bunch of brand snobs.

  8. The last truly great Golf was the Mk4. That one showed any contemporary Mercedes how to do a high quality interior. The spring loaded reel mechanism for the parcel shelf suspension strings alone is epitomising Fugen Ferdl’s mantra that God is in the details.
    The Mk4 also had very good corrosion protection, good structural integrity and long lasting engines, so they could be used over many years and are still a very common sight on the road.
    This was definitely not in VW’s interest and therefore the Mk5 was a big retrograde step quality wise (and that’s before you look at its troublesome two piece door design). From then on, decontenting was the name of the game.

    Today’s narrowing gap between VW and Skoda is more a result of making VWs cheaper and nastier than of Skodas getting so much better. When you look closely, even a fully dressed Octavia (which is a truly expensive car costing very serious money) has an interior partially similar to a commercial vehicle and doesn’t even offer cloth inserts in its door trim in it smost expensive L&K specification level (at least not the Octavias I’ve sat in).
    What really set VWs apart in the past was a specific instant and intuitive usability their cars once had. You could step into any VW rental car and were able to use it bind folded. They now are slowly giving that up by fitting all kinds of electronic bling bling that does nothing but make using the car more complicated.

    Last year I got a rental Clio to drive around in Croatia. It took me ages to figure out how to deactivate all its silly nannying systems, it was an incredibly bad drive and it was absolutely impossible to see anything from inside the car. In addition there was a downright frightening level of lack of attention to detail on open display that made the car an utterly nasty experience to use. Compared to that, it is absolutely understandable why people are prepared to pay more for an equivalent VW that does not yet have all these glitches and faults.

  9. I won’t consider a DSG style automatic for the very reason that Toyota won’t put their name to such a fiscal handgrenade.
    The VW group can keep their white goods ……..and their servicing/spare parts profit margins.

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