It wasn’t quite Chris Rock at The Oscars , but a protester found a way to make a point at the high-profile press preview at the Geneva Motor Show this week.
Dressed as a mechanic and holding a wrench and a prop labeled “cheat box,” the clever protester managed to puncture Volkswagen’s press presentation by walking on stage, looking under a display car, and declaring that VW CEO Matthias Mueller “said it was OK as long as no one finds out about it.”
Volkswagen executives were not amused. But they also were somewhat handicapped in their remarks at Geneva by the very reality of the persistent Dieselgate scandal in which company engineers apparently conspired to defeat emissions tests in the US and Europe. Hefty fines, lower sales and badly damaged reputations have trailed. But Volkswagen brand chief Herbert Diess nonetheless was on the offensive in Switzerland as he outlined new models and his company’s efforts at culture change rather than discuss the scandal much.
“Things are changing at Volkswagen—that is how you could describe what is happening at our brand at the moment,” said Diess. “We are looking at who we are and what we do, we are taking far-reaching decisions, we are breaking new ground, we are looking for new ideas—think new.
“Millions of people trust VW. Millions of people value the quality, reliability and technical perfection of our cars. And millions of people associate great moments and memories with their VW.”
Then, Diess added a note of contrition. “We know Volkswagen has some making up to do. And we are confident we can win back the trust of our customers quickly.”
Also during press days, Mueller said that the company was “working intensely with the respective authorities on a sustainable overall solution” to the fact that the US Justice Department has sued VW for up to $46 billion for Dieselgate and is pressing the company for a fix for nearly 600,000 affected cars more than five months after the scandal broke.
“We continue to be in constructive talks,” Mueller said, without addressing a report that one possibility is American regulators will force Volkswagen to build electric cars in the US as a sort of penance and as one element of a settlement. Otherwise, Mueller said, “We have started a lot of customer-relations programs.”
VW chieftains weren’t the only ones chattering on the sidelines in Geneva. For example, Harald Krueger, CEO of main rival BMW, said that his company aims to remain the world’s top-selling luxury carmaker ahead of Volkswagen’s Audi division and Mercedes-Benz.
“Our aim is to be No. 1,” Krueger said, adding that he expected slight sales growth this year thanks to increases in China and Europe. But among other demands, BMW is talking with European regulators about how to improve sales of electric cars amid falling gasoline and diesel-fuel prices.
Meanwhile, fresh off the news that his 2015 compensation dropped by 70 percent, to just $11 million, after he’d received a huge bonus the year before for successfully combining Fiat and Chrysler, CEO Sergio Marchionne was
addressing his efforts to find or force a merger partner for FCA.
He wasn’t able to force General Motors CEO Mary Barra into a deal, but Marchionne said that he spoke briefly with other carmakers; none offered sufficient benefits. He only wants a merger that will fundamentally alter the landscape of the car industry, Marchionne said. And will Fiat Chrysler remain viable without such a combination, given his ambitious plans for new products and more market share over the next few years? “Absolutely,” he said at Geneva.
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