The Jetta in Times Square, right after Katy Perry danced on top of it. (Jim Motavalli photo)
NEW YORK CITY--I've never understood why automakers don't pay more attention to producing better entry-level cars. After all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, God must have loved poor people because he made so many of them. Car magazines like Road & Track and Car and Driver are full of dreams on wheels with names like Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati. But the names most of us are familiar with from the driver's seat are Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Volkswagen.
VW is making a push to be a bigger part of the collective consciousness, and partly that means producing a new $16,000 edition of the Jetta that is price-competitive with the Corolla, Civic and other top cars from Japan and Korea. It's about time, because while most people have respect for German technology they also think the cars are generally too expensive -- especially at the bottom end of the market.
The new Jetta is coming in October, but it was in New York's Times Square Wednesday for a gala debut that tried to add a hip gloss to a model with an image problem. (Everybody likes the Jetta, but nobody loves it.) The last time VW tried this with the Jetta, in 1997, it tossed a folding bicycle in the trunk and proclaimed a new model called the Trek. OK, but it's kind of like putting bell bottoms on the school principal.
To that same end, VW was trying to make the Jetta cool in Times Square by bringing in some pop icons -- specifically singer Katy Perry and Food Network chef Mario Batali. I doubt either one really knew why they were there, but their wide appeal meant standing room only in the VIP section. They got the actual VW unveiling over quickly, and U.S. CEO Stefan Jacoby said a few words about making the car "fun." He was off in 10 minutes.
Perry didn't say a word about Volkswagen, but her poured-on green plastic mini-dress had plenty to say. She prowled the stage as if it was Bonaroo, or maybe the MTV Music Awards. And at least she took off her spiky shoes before climbing on the Jetta's hood. Despite a big band and (inaudible) backup singers, the sound was fairly thin -- pop singers need producers, as well as guest rappers, to get the hits across. But she had on a green plastic mini-dress, and her young band was decked out in bright primary colors, so all was forgiven, including her having kissed a girl (or "gurl" as she spells it for her current hit). Here is a brief video from the concert, complete with a shot of a cameraman scratching his head:
It's a relentless youth culture we live in, isn't it? Before the set started, an older balding guy came out, picked up an exotic-looking guitar and played some power chords. Surely, Katy Perry wouldn't have a guitar player who looked like that, would she? She didn't, he was a guitar tech -- the actual guitarist was a GQ type who was definitely in the right demographic. At least Mario Batali is unashamedly rotund and has a 60s-refugee ponytail.
One Katy Perry concert probably isn't enough: VW will have to go forward with a relentless media campaign to build up the kind of youth appeal for the Jetta that the New Beetle (due for a makeover next year) enjoys effortlessly. It has to be seen on reality shows, and taken for spins by Hannah Montana. There is precedent for this, because VW's self-mocking advertising campaign for the original Beetle created a market, and is now being taught in marketing classes. At one point, the Beetle and the Coke bottle vied for the world's most recognizable shapes. The aim is clear enough: VW wants to break out of its niche status in the U.S. (it has just over a three percent market share here now, but is aiming (with Audi included) to sell a million cars a year by 2018.
I should note here that the VW brand, after years of saying that diesels made more sense than hybrids, is now firmly embracing the concept -- a Jetta Hybrid is coming in 2012. Also getting hybridized is the Touareg (next year), the Golf (same drivetrain as the Jetta) and the Passat. A fleet of battery-powered Golf and Jetta cars are also headed for test programs.
I'd like to think that what really matters with cars is providing good value for the money, but the evidence is elsewhere. People didn't buy all those SUVs with their heads, but with their hearts. And Katy Perry, Mario Batalli, Hannah Montana and "cool" placement on TV and Facebook matter to move product out the door.
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