Own-Brand Cassoulet

Volkswagen Group’s mass-market brands are losing their individual identities under the dead hand of corporate conformity.

They don’t make them like this anymore: 2009 Škoda Yeti. Image: autocentrum

The automotive colossus that is the Volkswagen Group includes four mass-market brands that might be rather simplistically defined as follows, in descending hierarchical order:

Audi: premium sporting
Volkswagen: semi-premium luxury
SEAT: mainstream sporting
Škoda: mainstream value

I am conscious that such a bald statement might elicit howls of protest from those who see things differently. They will ask, in what way is an Audi Q7 or SEAT Alhambra sporting, a Volkswagen Up! luxurious, or a fully loaded Škoda Kodiaq, list price £51k, a value proposition? More than many rules of thumb, this one is riddled with exceptions and inconsistencies. These definitions are more to do with the competitors against which each marque is pitched than the individual models offered, and the marques carry the baggage of history on their shoulders rather heavily.

In 1993, Ferdinand Piëch was appointed Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG, the ultimate holding company for the Volkswagen Group, which was at that time moribund and haemorrhaging cash. Piëch was a highly capable engineer and manager and he set about revitalising and redefining the group’s marques. The Volkswagen Group had acquired SEAT in 1990 and Škoda in 1991 and had yet to define a coherent strategy for managing its enlarged portfolio.

Piëch faced a number of challenges. Although SEAT had been manufacturing the Giugiaro-designed Ibiza since 1984, its identity was still inextricably linked with Fiat, and it had little visibility outside the Iberian peninsula. Likewise, Škoda had been manufacturing the Bertone-designed Favorit since 1987, but its reputation was still shaped by its long obsolescent rear-engined cars that were the subject of many crass jokes from stand-up comedians. Although flawed, both the Ibiza and Favorit were well designed and engineered cars, and an indication of the potential for both marques.

Or like this: 1998 SEAT Toledo Mk2. Image: Motoring Research.

Piëch had another problem to contend with, the threatened downward march of Mercedes-Benz into the C-segment, Volkswagen’s heartland. This would break a long-standing mutual understanding that neither company would invade the other’s territory. The forthcoming 1997 A-Class would be a direct competitor for the Golf(1). BMW’s 1993 3-Series Compact, although a niche offering, was another new and unwelcome Golf competitor, and a sign of a more serious threat to come from Munich.

Piëch’s fightback plan was ambitious and aggressive: Volkswagen would be driven upmarket and pitched directly against Mercedes-Benz, while Audi would set its gunsights on BMW. SEAT would assume a sporting mantle to become a Spanish Alfa-Romeo, while Škoda would become the group’s value brand, emphasising the one positive USP it already possessed, low pricing.

Of course, Piëch’s plan did not work out quite as he might have hoped. The Phaeton, Volkswagen’s challenger to Mercedes-Benz on Stuttgart’s own ground, was a flop. Audi did better but remained, to some degree, disadvantaged by its FWD architecture, at least until 4WD sports saloons and coupés came into vogue.

Expensive flop: 2002 Volkswagen Phaeton. Image: carspecsreview

With the other marques, the messaging was, to say the least, somewhat muddled. The 1996 Alhambra MPV was inexplicably branded a SEAT rather than the much more rational Škoda, while the 2001 Fabia RS(2) and 2003 Octavia RS would have made much more sense as SEAT models. The 2001 Škoda Superb was essentially a Chinese market LWB Passat, so was in no way inferior to its smaller Volkswagen stablemate, to which it became an unintended competitor.

These were largely unforced errors on the part of Volkswagen Group, but a more fundamental and intractable problem frustrated the attempts to achieve marque differentiation: the widespread sharing of platforms and component sets, which was key to the group’s efficiency and profitability, made it difficult to differentiate the marques sufficiently in terms of either build cost or fundamental sophistication.

Volkswagen also spent some time researching the concept of a fifth, more value-orientated mainstream marque, aimed at entry-level customers and emerging markets, but it could not make the business case for this work, as it would have required the development of a different, cheaper architecture and component set.

One possible route out of this bind might have been to recycle previous-generation architectures and component sets that had already been amortised for the Škoda model range. Volkswagen did attempt this once, albeit for different reasons(3) with the B7-generation Audi A4, but the lucky recipient was SEAT, not Škoda. The venture, which produced the 2008 Exeo saloon and estate, was a failure.

Re-heated Audi A4: 2008 SEAT Exeo. Image: coc-seat.net

More recently, the 2012 SEAT Toledo and Škoda Rapid twins were models that sat uneasily in both marques’ ranges. They were spartan, austere and unsophisticated transport that might have made sense for Škoda if that marque had been developed as a true value brand to rival Dacia. The Spaceback variant of the Rapid, for which there was no SEAT equivalent, was particularly incoherent. Instead of the regular Rapid’s long liftback tail and big boot, it had a truncated rear end and upright tailgate.

Bizzarely, Škoda UK initially tried to charge a £1,100 premium for the Spaceback over the regular liftback variant, which was, quite literally, less car for more money. Moreover, there was no practical reason why anyone would buy the Rapid Spaceback over the Fabia estate, which was cheaper and had a greater luggage capacity with the back seats either in position or folded down. There was no aesthetic reason to do so either, as the Spaceback had a rather odd looking long and narrow hunchbacked stance.

2012 Škoda Rapid Hunchback…sorry, Spaceback. Image: carsguide.com.au

The Rapid sold well enough, achieving average annual(4) European sales of 63k units, which is between one quarter and one third those of the Octavia. The vast majority of sales were of the liftback variant. No separate figures are available, but the Spaceback is vanishingly rare, in the UK at least. The Toledo, which nominally replaced the Exeo, was another complete flop, achieving average annual European sales of just 8k units.

Having apparently not learnt the lesson from its experience with the Spaceback, Škoda launched the Scala in 2019, more or less a replacement for the Spaceback, and a direct competitor for mainstream C-segment hatchbacks. Previously, Škoda had avoided this situation by pitching its C and D-segment models, the Octavia and Superb, half a size larger than the competition. The Scala achieved modest sales of 53k in 2020, its first full year on sale, compared with the SEAT Leon at 111k and VW Golf at 285k.

Try again: 2019 Škoda Scala. Image: Carmagazine.com.

The problem of marque differentiation has, if anything, become increasingly acute in recent years. Volkswagen Group seems to have insisted on even more commonality between marques. The creative freedom formerly enjoyed by Škoda that gave us the 2006 Roomster MPV and 2009 Yeti crossover has been consigned to history. This new conformity has resulted in certain models, in particular the crossovers from each marque, becoming virtual clones of each other. The 2016 SEAT Ateca and 2017 Škoda Karoq are all but identical, and not greatly different from the Volkswagen Tiguan and even the Audi Q3. Any of these models could plausibly carry the marque badge of any other.

Spot the difference: 2017 Škoda Karoq and 2016 SEAT Ateca. Images: Skoda & SEAT websites

One of the unintended consequences of this increased commonality in styles is that the more premium marques, Volkswagen and Audi, are sporting ever more fussy and overwrought detailing in an effort to offer more style than their mainstream stablemates. This leaves SEAT and Škoda in the curious position of offering the cleaner and more pleasing designs, to these eyes at least.

Having apparently given up on its efforts to establish SEAT as a sporting marque, Volkswagen Group has launched Cupra as a sub-brand, and the Formentor compact crossover as its first stand-alone model in 2020. The Formentor’s curvaceous style is refreshingly different from the current rectilinear Volkswagen Group norm, but one wonders if the group would not have been better served by utilising this new style to differentiate one of its mainstream brands, such as SEAT itself.

Refreshingly different: the 2020 Cupra Formentor. Image: jct600.co.uk

Of course, Volkswagen Group would argue that the individual marques are different enough, in perception if not reality, not to cannibalise each other’s sales and that commonality is still the best way to maximise profits. That is probably true, but it does nothing to enhance the automotive landscape for those of us who appreciate motor vehicles for their design qualities and not just their practical or dynamic attributes.

Perhaps electrification might provide an opportunity for clearer marque differentiation? The 2019 Volkswagen ID.3 and 2020 ID.4 models briefly gave us hope of a new and unique styling direction for Volkswagen, but the recently unveiled SEAT el-Born is little more than a blatant clone of the ID.3.

Not different at all: 2021 SEAT el-Born. Image: seat.co.uk

It is particularly disappointing that the Volkswagen Group seems to be so limited in imagination, or so driven solely by cost control, to the exclusion of design distinctiveness and marque identity, that it is already producing a ‘badge engineered’ version of a landmark new model for its eponymous marque. This is not an auspicious portent for the future.

 

(1) In price and interior space, even if its novel mechanical layout gave it a smaller footprint than the Golf.

(2) Badged vRS in the British Isles.

(3) In the mid-2000’s SEAT’s model range comprised almost entirely monobox MPV-style vehicles and it desperately needed a more conventionally styled model to appeal to conservative customers.

(4) Annual average for the full years on sale. All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

43 thoughts on “Own-Brand Cassoulet”

  1. Ah, Daniel, I couldn’t agree more. We’re currently on holiday in North Devon rather than our usual southwest London, and it’s been great to see so many Yetis on the road. It’s a vehicle that just looks “right”, and surely can’t have been especially expensive to manufacture.
    As a Superb estate owner I think what Škoda at least should focus on is practicality. My car, while handsome to my eyes, is let down by its sloping tailgate, meaning that we can’t transport a reasonably sized Victorian writing desk to my father-in-laws as well as my children, as the slope eats into too much space. A Volvo V70 style tailgate would liberate much more space and also look more purposeful.
    As you point out, the Rapid and Scala seem pointless additions to the range whereas the Roomster and Yeti offered alternatives to anything else from the VW empire, and had little competition from elsewhere (I’m thinking Kangoo and Berlingo for the Roomster, but I could be wrong.
    Are VW still hampered by the costs from Dieselgate?

    1. And it’s a “hear, hear” from me, Andy. The Roomster’s low positioned driver’s seat put me off it but a Yeti very nearly became a replacement for the last of three Doblos (original model and its mild face-lift, not the current version) that we found supremely practical vehicles. Cessation of Yeti production was unforgivable.

      As for vehicles with sloping rears which call themselves Estates, they’re less useful than the proverbial chocolate teapot. At least one of those can be eaten.

    2. I certainly agree with you about the Yeti. Such a useful car and amazed that Skoda haven’t produced an updated version yet.

    3. Good morning gentlemen. I couldn’t agree more about the Yeti. My sister-in-law and her husband have a Yeti 2.0 litre 4×4 diesel for towing their caravan and it’s a terifficly useful and practical car (with a bolt-upright tailgate to maximise carrying capacity).

      Škoda offered a LWB version of the Yeti in China, making it even more useful:

      What a shame it was discontinued,

    4. PS Daniel, love your caption for the Skoda Rapid Hunchback!

  2. I seem to be on a run this week as my daily driver is a Roomster which replaced a Berlingo four years ago. Unlike the Citroen, with back seats removed it can stow two bicycles upright with wheels still attached, and does so by allowing them to be reversed in through those bizarre looking but tall (taller than the tailgate) rear passenger doors. I have no idea whether that admittedly niche capability was part of the remit but it seems to reflect the overall genius of the design.

    1. William, I have to say it, you have impeccable taste in cars, especially from a DTW perspective!

  3. Very interesting piece, Daniel.
    In the 1960’s one could buy kits to DSize and even to Pallasize IDs. People would buy a used ID and make their neighbors and relatives believe they were well enough to be able to afford a DS Pallas. You needed to look inside at the type a gear lever to make the difference.
    I have been wondering if today there was similar kits to AUDIize VWs. It must be very simple.
    Nick

    1. Hi Nicholas. In similar vein, there’s a healthy trade in China in badges to turn this, the Landwind X7, into a ‘genuine’ Range Rover Evoque:

      Apparently, you could even buy them ‘under the counter’ at Landwind dealers!

  4. Thank you Daniel, for this worthy attempt at explaining the inexplicable. VAG’s brand ‘strategy’ has genuinely confused me for years and it just gets worse. Let’s see, you have Audi, the posh one, except it isn’t because sometimes that’s VW so Audi must be posh sporting except when it obviously isn’t. VW is the standard, main offering that is comfortably posh except when it isn’t, which is most of the time. Seat is… I have literally no idea. Skoda meanwhile is the value proposition except when it isn’t which is all the time but it’s probably the one you actually want if you want this sort of thing at all, which you probably don’t any more.

    As for Cupra, I had completely forgotten that is now also a thing. Must be to compete with that gigantically successful brand Abarth. Madness.

    1. Hi Chris. Your explanation of the strategy is just as coherent and far more succinct than mine. Well done!

    2. Thank you Daniel and Chris for a “Ladybird Guide to VAG”; a valiant attempt which should be read by the VAG strategists so they know what the consumer thinks.

      I would have thought that the last thing VAG needs is another sub-brand, particularly one with those ‘Transformers’ looks which are ubiquitous today – Yuk!
      Same can be said for the el-Born, which looks like it has had really bad lip-filler surgery – YUK!!
      Is it just me who thinks the Karoq and Ateca are better looking than more recent designs…?

    3. Hello vwmeister. Yes, VW Group’s strategy is looking increasingly frenetic as it seeks to add more and more micro-distinctions to fundamentally identical silhouettes. The so-called “Tornado Line” double-crease detail that is a feature on the latest Polo, T-Cross and Tiguan is technically impressive, but fussy and contrived, IMHO.

      Here are comparative photos of the latest Polo (top) and it’s clean and handsome predecessor:

      And yes, the Karoq and Ateca are indeed handsome because they are essentially the same design and resemble the cleaner, previous-generation Volkswagens!

    4. To my eyes the wheels on the new Polo look absolutely awful.

  5. One solution to the Seat/Škoda problem would be to follow the Opel/Vauxhall pattern: the cars would be identical, model for model, and each market would get only one of the two brands, whichever was historically more successful there.

    1. The only problem with that idea, Jonathan, is that you might deprive Audi drivers of the opportunity to look down their noses at Škoda drivers in essentially the same car!

  6. I completely agree Mike.
    Even worse, there’s a new car out which has spokes slanted forwards (clockwise) which looks fine on one side of the car but backwards (anti-clockwise) on the other! How do designers get away with that 🤯?
    DTW points to whoever can name the car (I can’t remember).

    1. Oh, I think I know! This one:

      Note the matching ‘eyelashes’ on the wheel arches that correspond to the wheels on the left-hand side, but run counter on the right-hand side:

      As you would say succinctly, YUK!! It’s a shame because otherwise the design is interesting and pleasantly different.

    2. That’s it – well done. I’d forgotten about the eyelashes on the wheel arches. I agree the car’s design is appealing otherwise. Thank you for the photos.

    3. Of course it wouldn’t hurt to mirror the wheels – after all this is an expensive car and a very interesting design feature, so why not get the best out of it? – but at least there is a second set of black spokes that go the same way as the right-side “eyelashes”:

  7. As if to link nicely to the recent DTW articles on the Exeo, and on the perceived failure of OneFord in Europe, last week’s Auto Express revealed a new VW “coupe crossover”, the Taigo: positioned between T-Cross and T-Roc, based on a South American vehicle called Nivus, using the Polo et al platform, and (according to Wikipedia) retaining the Polo’s doors. I think VW’s previous South American car to be offered in Europe was the Fox, which did not seem to be a major success.

    1. Hi Tom. Yes, the Fox, somewhat like the EcoSport (but nowhere near as bad) had s whiff of emerging markets austerity about it. DTW covered it here:

      Which Way Up?

    2. The Taigo’s doors certainly look identical to those on the metallic orange Polo above:

      One detail in the Taigo’s side profile really irritates me, the superfluous black trim ahead of the rear light cluster that cuts into the wing. The shape of the red lens picks up the wing to bumper panel-gap nicely, so the black trim looks especially jarring. More generally, I’m not a fan of VW’s increasingly fussy and fragmented rear light graphics:

    3. The wing to bumper panel-gap shouldn’t really be seen, so you do not want the rear light to draw attention to it !

  8. Daniel, if I’m not wrong the Seat el-Born was only a prototype – the production version is a Cupra:

    I’m afraid I don’t like it very much; the reworking of the rear is quite clever but the ID.3 shape is not a great base for this “sporty” treatment – at least the minimalism of the VW version and the allusions to the Beetle era have a certain appeal.
    VW have recently launched the sub-Skoda Jetta brand in China and it seems that they might expand it to other markets: Its current products include a facelift of the last Chinese VW Jetta (which is Rapid-based), a badge-engineered Ateca and a bespoke LWB version of the latter with a Karoq-like DLO. I think there is potential for it to evolve into a global Dacia -like brand, though I guess there’s not much of a place for it where VW offers products like the Gol and Fox…
    It’s really a pity that Skoda no longer offer something like the Yeti and Roomster (though the Kamiq does have a bit of their spirit?) but I think that their more expensive cars (Superb, Kodiaq, Enyaq and even the new Octavia) are totally spot-on (though I also think that a more practical Superb estate would make more sense) – despite not being “premium” they have a certain class that reminds me of older Audis, Lancias or Volvos and that makes them more effective than, say, a current Mondeo or Insignia (I think that I’ve read somewhere that Skodas are perceived as slightly more upmarket than VWs in China!). I’d say that there’s almost an Ami vs DS dynamic between the Scala and those cars.

    1. Hi Megasigma. I’m not sure that making the near-clone of the ID.3 a Cupra rather than a SEAT isn’t even worse. Cupra has no real brand awareness and giving it a rag-tag range of rebadged SEATs, cloned VWs and one unique model is not the way to build a coherent brand.

      VW’s China ‘Jetta’ budget brand is still using recycled or rebadged mainstream VW Group vehicles, so potential profitability is questionable. That said, the recycled Rapid is probably the right product for it.

      I certainly agree that the larger Škoda vehicles are, de facto, latterday Audis, and rather more subtle and restrained than the ‘genuine’ article these days.

    2. As I read – although I wasn’t interested – Cupra will be the electric branch of Seat.

    3. Hi Fred. I don’t think that’s the case. The Formentor, Cupra’s first stand-alone model that’s not also branded SEAT, is an ICE vehicle with a plug-in hybrid version, not an EV.

    4. Out of academic interest, are Cupras sold out of Cupra dealerships ?

  9. Why don’t we offer the same criticism of the latest Astra and Corsa that we are heaping on the el-Born?

    1. Hi gooddog. Apologies, I’m not sure I understand the premise of your question. Is it because the Astra and Corsa are sold under both Opel and Vauxhall badges (but not in competition with each other in the same market)?

      My criticism of the el-Born (whether it’s a SEAT or a Cupra) is that it is pretty much a ‘badge-engineered’ VW ID.3 and it seems extraordinary that VW is already plagarising such an important new model.

    2. It seems to me that beneath the creases, bulges and other superficial details that the Corsa is a 208 and the Astra is a 308. Educate me please.

    3. Ah, I see, a fair point, although I would argue that the stylistic convergence this piece is highlighting is far more of an issue for VW Group than it is for Stellantis, so far at least. The current Peugeot, Citroën, and Opel/Vauxhall models that share platforms and mechanical underpinnings could never be mistaken for each other.

      Funnily enough, in an earlier draft of this piece, I made reference to the possible lessons for Stellantis from VW Group’s experience, but pressure of space made us (Eóin and I) decide to hold over an analysis of the new combine’s issues for another piece to come.

    4. Daniel, I see what you mean, that the Taycan and the e-tron GT are exactly the same car within a couple of mm is a slightly different matter, and outside the scope of your piece. Nobody is confusing Audis with Porsches, perhaps only because Porsche has been rigorous in avoiding gratuitous character lines (and creases)*.

      * whatever that is running along the sill and into the bumpers of the 996 was explained with a straight face: “That’s a [em]blutline[/em], like a meat cutting board has”

  10. VAG and now Stellantis. It’s all becoming rather like BMC in the ’50s and ’60s.

    Will Herbert and Carlos demonstrate Len Lord-like spite, and favour particular marques and try to starve others to death? In Len’s case, he favoured Vanden Plas and Austin-Healey over Riley, Wolseley, and MG, which were Nuffield brands.

  11. May I congratulate you on the headline. It very effectively summarises the whole mess. It is also decently funny.
    If I think about VAG cars I think of the ID which is just the Golf re-invetented; the Skoda as ritzy as a Mercedes, the other Skoda that is like an Alfa Rome; there´s a Seat that could be a Peugeot and the Arteon which is sleeker than an Audi and the Audis that are not Audis anymore (have another storm line, sir, and some more creases – there are plenty more in the pot…).

    1. Thank you, Richard. I’m no fan of cassoulet and regard it as an insipid mush, hence the reference seemed appropriate here. Apologies to anyone I might have just offended!

    2. You obviously have never had a good one Daniel! I should take you to Le Garrick in Covent Garden.

    3. Good morning Andy. I don’t doubt you’re right about a good cassoulet. Irrationally, I took against it after one bad experience!

  12. Daniel, I am not certain, but have a search for Nivus images – possibly the rear lights extend into that black (or ‘smoked’?) area on the original car? EU regulations might prevent the original Nivus lights from being used on the Taigo, perhaps – so they have perhaps filled the gap but not gone body-coloured like the M-Benz CLC that was on DTW a few months ago.

    1. Well spotted Tom, you’re right. The graphic on the Nivus is different and continues into the rear quarter panel:

  13. I haven’t followed too closely so I’m a bit puzzled on why everyone is posting Nivus pictures, but I just wanted to chime in with my 2 cents as an American viewer. VW has always had a bit of a premium tint to it here, certainly pulled down a bit by the proletarian-ness of the Beetle and Bus, but definitely with the Germanic flair to put it above Chevys and Toyotas since the late ’90s. I can’t help but wonder if Piech’s push in the early to mid 2000s by making Volkswagen a maker of all cars, from cheap to expensive, was not necessarily just a nudge towards the other Germans moving downmarket, but also a recognition that ‘Volkswagen’ is the name of the group as a whole, therefore the namesake marque must purvey every sort of automobile regardless of what its subsidiaries have to offer. There was certainly more clarity through the 2000s with the Yeti and Roomster, as you say, and lots of zest when Seat decided to be an MPV brand (I say as the resident MPV enthusiast of any room I enter).

    I certainly preferred that take on the platform sharing as well, with same engines and chassis but lots of creative bodystyles. I can’t help but think that the latest examples where they blend more and more into generic similarity is just as calculated, though; none of those sales experiments between Skoda and Seat ever took off, and I think therein lies the latest crux of the matter: VW would rather sell three similar models that serve different markets rather than differentiate those brands. Sure, in Europe the Skoda, VW, and Seat versions of everything are available, but in the US, it’s VW all day, every day, and same in China. Latin markets are split between VW and Seat, and certainly the value and heritage of Skoda wins out in CIS regions. Making three similar hatches or CUVs is far cheaper than making one wagon, one MPV, and one Yeti out of the same platform, and likely sells better to the locales they’re from as well. I doubt many Spainiards were fond of Seat when they went all MPV, and perhaps many Czech wanted a more typical CUV than a Yeti. I do wonder if VW will start shrinking those brands’ markets and start refocusing on sub-brands for export, i.e. making Seat only available in target markets while Cupra becomes an export brand.

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