Volkswagen of America is running a contest to find the oldest and highest-mileage diesel-powered VWs still running on their original engines. The competition is more than a publicity stunt. It has kicked off one of the most ambitious campaigns to persuade American motorists that their cars will last longer and use far less fuel if they switch to diesel. The German carmaker needs to generate interest ahead of next February’s planned launch of its diesel-powered Jetta TDI, which VW hopes will not only revive the group’s flagging US sales but put it in pole position to capture growing demand for diesels in the world’s biggest car market. The Jetta is expected to be the first diesel to comply with increasingly stringent emission standards in all 50 states.
In spite of its headstart over rivals such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Nissan, Volkswagen faces a Herculean task. It is not only promoting a vehicle but trying to change a mindset. “The US image of diesel today is like Europe 20 years ago,” says Adrian Hallmark, head of VW of America. “It’s got a dirty, noisy, smoky reputation.”
Still, the German carmaker is confident it can show Americans that their perception of diesel lags reality. VW aims to spread the message that diesel, as Mr. Hallmark puts it, is “a guilt-free way of having fun in a car”.
The coming campaign will prefix any mention of diesel with the word “clean”. Performance will also be a big part of VW’s message. Because diesel engines require more compression to ignite the fuel, they also provide more torque, and thus more powerful acceleration.
Americans are “hungry for innovative, efficient and well-made products”, Mr Hallmark says, comparing the new Jetta TDI (short for turbo-charged direct injection) to the success of Toyota’s Prius hybrid hatchback.
“We’re not going to do a lot of different things,” Mr Hallmark adds. “We want to do one or two things really well.”
VW plans to appeal to a relatively narrow group of buyers, mainly on the east and west coasts, who are environmentally aware but also want some fun from their cars. “We’re probably not going to sell too many in Nebraska,” he says.
VW’s long-life diesel car contest could provide another boost. Of the 115-plus cars entered so far, at least 20 have more than half a million miles under their belt. One has clocked almost 900,000. VW hopes this could draw oohs and aahs for diesel when the winner is announced later this year.