Wheels24 contributor Ferdi De Vos takes a look at Volkswagen's recently established Jetta brand to be sold in China.
"I have just bought a Jetta," the Chinese car buyer tells his good friend over a pot of chicken noodles.
"Ah, a Volkswagen," his learned, car-savvy friend replies.
"No, a Jetta. I tell you, a Jetta, not a Volkswagen...!"
"Well, a Jetta is a Volkswagen," his friend replies, somewhat irritated.
Oh, no. This is a JETTA. It is not a Volkswagen…" our buyer says, by now quite annoyed with his omniscient, pedantic friend.
"But I tell you," the exasperated friend fires back, "If it is a Jetta it is a Vee-dub."
And then the fight begins.
Technically, our car-buyer’s friend is correct. But only technically, as Volkswagen has just established Jetta (or JETTA) as a stand-alone brand in China.
Like Volkswagen. Or Audi. Or Bentley. It is a historic event, as it is the first time in the 80-year history of Volkswagen that a model is transformed into a brand.
The irony is that Volkswagen of South Africa had a small role to play in establishing Jetta as a model and a nameplate, and now a brand, in China, while locally – after nearly three decades of local Jetta production (with 314 000 built) and seven model generations – we will not receive the latest Jetta model here…
The new JETTA brand is to Volkswagen what Datsun is to Nissan, or Daihatsu is to Toyota – a trademark to close the gap between the established VW lead brand in the top volume segment and entry-level mobility.
In China, the entry-level market accounts for about one-third of the market. It is served mainly by local brands but with the establishment of the new JETTA brand the VW Group intends to exploit its market potential in China even more effectively.
Vehicle ownership levels are still very low in many cities with millions of people outside the metropolitan regions such as Beijing or Shanghai – in some cases below 100 cars per 1 000 inhabitants – yet members of the growing middle class are striving for individual mobility with the first car of their own.
So, with JETTA, Volkswagen especially intends to target these young Chinese customers. The new brand, to be produced by FAW-Volkswagen in Chengdu, is based on the key elements of the Volkswagen DNA but will be specially tailored to the needs of the Chinese market. Initially, a sedan and two SUV models will be offered.
The SA connection
Volkswagen is still the most successful foreign car brand in China, thanks to being one of the first players in the market, over forty years ago.
In 1984, Volkswagen set up the first passenger-car Joint Venture company in China with SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.) to assemble Santana sedans (related to the Passat), a model that was produced uninterrupted in China for three decades.
In 1990, VW concluded another Joint Venture deal in China with the oldest local car maker, FAW (First Auto Works). It was during this time that VW moved its US production line for Jetta to Changchun, China.
Production of the Jetta started at the end of 1991, but the initial ramp-up was too slow to satisfy demand, and in 1992 Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA) won a contract to export left-hand drive Jettas produced in Uitenhage to China.
The three-year export order, initially for 12 500 cars but later increased to 17 220, was worth R750 million in foreign earnings. The contract ended in 1995 but made a small contribution towards establishing the Jetta in the Chinese market.
The four-door compact sedan became famous in China for its bullet-proof durability, mostly due to the proven 1.6-litre 8-valve engine, delivering 80kW and 150Nm of torque in its final incarnation, that powered every Chinese Jetta until 2013.
Many of these engines, up to 12 000 per annum, were built in Uitenhage and exported to China, and nearly thirty years after its original launch and three exterior facelifts later the Jetta II was finally replaced by a new China-only version based on the fourth-generation Jetta.
According to Jürgen Stackmann, Member of the Volkswagen brand Board of Management responsible for Sales, the Jetta plays an extremely valuable role for Volkswagen in China.
"It has brought mobility for the masses. Developed by Volkswagen and built in China, it has put China on four wheels," he says.
"It still is one of Volkswagen’s most popular models in China – a real icon and that is why we are transforming a model into a brand for the first time in the history of Volkswagen."
Volkswagen delivered 3.11 million vehicles to customers last year and with a share of almost 50% in worldwide deliveries, China is Volkswagen’s largest single market and last year the carmaker also delivered the 30 millionth Volkswagen to a Chinese customer.
China is now the world’s largest automobile market and at the forefront of the greatest transformation ever experienced by the automotive industry.
So, don’t be surprised when, in just a couple of years from now, the first JETTA produced in China is introduced on South African soil – taking us full circle from Jetta exporters to importing JETTA from China…