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Opinion

Opinion: Humility, made in Germany

Car makers are throwing themselves a party in Detroit. All except Volkswagen, which is scrambling to salvage its reputation. For DW's Ines Pohl, it's hard to imagine that the company's apologies will be sufficient.

It is all about power, money and status: the glitzy stage, the cars, buffed to a sheen, the flashy headlights, the bombastic, futuristic sounds and the hostesses with heels as tall as their skirts were short.

It is as if the car companies are saying: Owning one of the cars on show here in Detroit means you've made it. You're in.

The elaborate presentations have taken weeks to prepare. Cars are a billion-dollar industry after all. What they are really trying to sell consumers is everlasting potency, youthfulness, coolness and a conscientious awareness of the future.

It is all about dreams and projections, but also realities and cold, hard business. Customers pay a lot of money for the images they convey with their cars. Or would convey, if only they had enough money. Dreaming of the ultimate car is serious business.

This might explain why headlines about the VW emissions scandal won't seem to go away. The "Made in Germany" image is as strong as it is big. And it's vulnerable, for precisely those reasons.

But has the entire automobile industry really been placed under general suspicion, as many German politicians and functionaries fear and American spin doctors would lead one to believe?

Insinuations aren't helpful

The glamour of the NAIAS, the North American International Auto Show, is meant to give off the impression that interest in German carmakers remains intact. It is meant to emphasize that BMW, Porsche and Audi have reported record revenues and are expecting further growth. In fact, it means to say, these automakers are so confident in the quality and attractiveness of their electric cars and hydrogen-powered models that their dominance in the high-priced segments of the future is virtually guaranteed.

Pohl Ines Kommentarbild App

DW's US correspondent Ines Pohl

VW's new chief executive, Matthias Müller, also took the opportunity to apologize for the transgressions of his company with unprecedented clarity while trying to maintain an air of optimism.

But any hopes of profiting from the auto industry's booming sales, dominating the news cycle in the new year, evaporated once the United States government filed a private lawsuit against the German car company early last week. By the end of the week, prosecutors from nearly all 50 states had also threatened further legal action.

With no end to VW's legal woes in sight, Müller's unambiguous gesture in Detroit was that much more important. But will it be enough to smooth things over? Hard to imagine.

Even if American economic interests turn out to be the primary motive behind the legal action, the suits are about more than that. The Obama administration has overhauled the country's regulatory authorities into well-oiled machines, ones that aren't afraid to take aim at Germany and Europe.

This is about more than just VW

Germany, therefore, needs to be careful with the insinuation that the US is operating out of pure self-interest. After all, as a majority holder of Volkswagen shares, the German state of Lower Saxony wields direct influence over company policy. And no one can honestly believe that company managers with close ties to former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn had no knowledge of the deceit.

A German company cheated. Period. No amount of lamentation is going to change that. There is only one proper response: Find those responsible and punish them accordingly, without any hesitation.

Volkswagen owes its employees that much. So does the state of Lower Saxony. And they owe it to VW's competitors. This is about more than just Europe's largest automaker - it's about the "Made in Germany" brand on the whole. For now, that label doesn't seem to have lost any of its shine at the Detroit auto show.

But cars are so much more than just electronics wrapped in sheet metal, which is exactly why the situation is so precarious. VW used to stand for high-quality German workmanship.

And we all know how people react when they feel betrayed.

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