You’d figure that of all the major automakers today, Volkswagen is probably the least in need of creating brand awareness or touting its achievements. After all, as a collective, the group is well on its way to being peerless in global rankings, and as an individual brand, the perception of the marque as well as market penetration is at an all time-high.
Still, reinforcement is never a bad thing in any company’s books, if it translates to improved prestige amongst consumers and of course, sales. With the brand growing here in Malaysia, the cars themselves can only go so far in creating a better understanding of the brand. So, nothing like being in Wolfsburg, the heart of VW country, to absorb the veritable showcase of technology – and exploits – the brand has to offer.
Full story after the jump.
Everything in Wolfsburg, with a population of around 122,000, is pretty much driven by VW, socially and economically. The city is home to Bundesliga team VfL Wolfsburg, but despite a championship win in 2008-09 (its only title), the football isn’t usually what people come to the city to see, unless you happen to be a visiting German footie fan.
That honour goes to the Autostadt, which the company proudly proclaims as being the first service and communications platform of its kind in the world, representing the group’s values, expertise and services. In simpler terms, the auto state – or car city, if you will – is essentially an automotive theme park showcasing all that’s brightest and best about the group’s brands.
The Autostadt – built at a cost of 430 million euros and opened in June 2000 – sits on 25 hectares of land area next to the main Volkswagen factory, and houses a veritable spread of buildings and attractions. By late 2011, more than 23 million people had visited the venue; in 2010 alone, nearly two million people poured in.
Meanwhile, the Autostadt CustomerCenter has also delivered more than 1.7 million vehicles to customers – an average of 550 car buyers pick up their new ride everyday from here. The stats continue with the Autoturme (CarTowers), two 48-metre tall glass towers which each accommodates 400 cars awaiting delivery. The by-now familiar automated storage silos provided the inspiration for the garage scene in Mission Impossible IV, with the set for the movie replicated in a location in Vancouver, Canada.
As for the CarTowers, new cars are rolled over from the neighbouring VW plant using a robotic-pallet system mounted on rails, then loaded into (or fetched) from the towers using two “car shuttles” or lifts per tower, each servicing 180° of a silo. Cars to be delivered are loaded 24 hours in advance of their collection from the Car Distribution Centre, an 87 metre wide, 16 metre high ellipse-shaped facility.
When delivery time arrives, a signal is activated by the delivery staff, which sets the shuttle off to select the correct vehicle, conveying it to the centre of the tower from where it is gently lowered to the ground floor. The vehicle then rolls through a tunnel into the distribution centre, number plates are mounted on it and it’s another happy customer served.
Interestingly, you get to feel what it’d be like to be a VW as it’s being tucked away in the silo – a CarTower Discovery ride in a panoramic glass lift in one of the silos takes you to an observation deck on the 20th floor, where you get to see the lay of the land, including Wolfsburg.
The biggie at the park is undoubtedly the ZeitHaus, a car museum housing nearly 200 historical Volkswagen vehicles as well as automotive milestones from more than 50 manufacturers – from the likes of a 1924 Lancia Lambda and a 1931 MG M-Type to a Horch 670 V-12, there’s plenty in the way of nostalgia, and the glass and metal building is certainly a treasure trove for those into automotive history.
Of course, VW takes centre stage at the Autostadt, but there are dedicated showpieces for the other marques under the group’s belt. Dedicated brand pavilions – all housed in the centre of the park – for Audi, Lamborghini, Seat, Skoda, VW Commercial and a Premium Clubhouse housing Bugatti join VW on the list. The Porsche pavilion was being built when we were there, and was inaugurated last month.
There’s also the GroupForum, which houses exhibitions and presentations focusing on automotive design. Of note is what’s tagged LEVEL GREEN – The Concept of Sustainability, a 1,000 m2 area offering six themed points and 26 exhibits concerning sustainability, using architecture to display the content in an interactive manner. Rather informative, even if you’re not really a greenie.
The GroupForum also plays host to a CarDesign Studio, which as its name suggests offers a peek into the world of automobile design, albeit on a surface level; still, it’s an eye opener for the average person seeing how designs shape up, be it renderings in clay or otherwise. There’s also a CarDesign Interface, which allows visitors to come up with their own designs, which can then be printed and taken home.
Conscious of the fact that not every visitor may only want to focus on cars and the like, and to make it a more versatile venue for families, the latter isn’t left out. Like in Ikea, kids get a host of things to do, and there’s no shortage of activity – the Mobiversum part of the GroupForum has an array of vehicular-related activities for a variety of ages, from drive-about land for those aged three and above to a ‘driving school’ for those five and above. There are also 13 restaurants to be found at the Autostadt, including nine operated by Movenpick, and the Ritz-Carlton is on site – no guesses where we stayed.
Naturally, the whole Wolfsburg experience isn’t complete until you’ve seen the main VW factory. The plant – with a workforce of some 50,000 – sits on an area more than six square kilometres and is, as the company eloquently puts it, ‘the largest single car-manufacturing complex in the world.’ Production of the the Golf, Touran and Tiguan takes place here, and in 2010 a total of 744,000 vehicles rolled out the doors.
In addition to building passenger cars, the site also makes components (an important mainstay on the plant portfolio) such as drive shafts and injection-moulded parts, which are either used in production at the plant itself or supplied to other group production sites.
Our tour of the facility was brief, but the innards and its workings were impressive to the sight, even to a jaded hack used to factory visits. Assembly went about with such quiet precision and Teutonic efficiency, you’d never mistake it for anything but German, the factory.
Capping things off for the familiarisation visit, which was organised by Volkswagen Group Malaysia, was a chance to sample some off-road capable vehicles at the GelandeParcours, otherwise known as the All-Terrain Track, located next to the Mittelland Canal, across the other side from the main concentration of the Autostadt.
The All-Terrain Track features a course that’s just over a kilometre long, but there’s a decent number of challenges in it, among them a water hazard, stairs, a seesaw bridge and a 60% incline hill. There was the chance to have a go with a Touareg V6 TDI, but the more interesting option was undoubtedly the Amarok TDI pickup, which should be on the cards for Malaysia at some point, word is. I can’t quite remember if the track mule was the 122 PS or 163 PS version of the 4Motion truck, but it was likely the latter, given the need to present things well.
Granted, going about things at a crawl for the most part didn’t reveal much about the six-speed manual vehicle beyond that it’s a capable off-roader, but then again the argument is that any 4×4 pickup worth its salt should also accomplish what it did on the course. Felt smooth enough over the short duration spent with it, but I’ll reserve judgement for now.
As for interior elements, it’s clean and everything feels tight, if spartan and workman-like in presentation. Someone hopped into the rear seat, and there’s more than decent amounts of legroom to be had, which is good news.
The exterior lines work well enough, but are a bit old school in the face of more fluid offerings like the new Ford Ranger having come about. Still, you can expect that providing that it’s priced competitively, there’ll definitely be take-up for the Amarok, because it’s a VW.
In all, the tour sampled all that was best about the brand, and as a showcase, the Autostadt is a veritable tour de force of tech and VW know-how. Proverbial chest thumping it may be, but there’s also a signal of intent in all that dazzle.
That the group aims to be the dominant global player by 2018 has already been established, and judging by the essence garnered from the visit, you’d have to be a betting man with a serious slant to place your money against it achieving that goal.