VW's CEO has promised to "learn from past mistakes" as the scandal-hit German carmaker seeks to recover from the devastating effect of its pollution scandal. Janelle Dumalaon reports from the Geneva Motor Show.
A sea of suits waiting in front of a white, glossy platform with swirling blue and white lights and pulsating techno had the makings of the kind of ostentatious presentation Volkswagen is usually known for at car shows.
But at this year's Geneva International Motor Show, the embattled German carmaker kept it simple. The start of the press conference featured smaller and comparatively more eco-friendly city cars, highlighting the new edition of Volkswagen's Up! natural gas.
Not even the random stage appearance of a man dressed as a Volkswagen mechanic claiming to be there to fix the Up! Model's emissions seemed to cause any sort of furor in what was ultimately a quiet affair. The man was quickly removed, and Volkswagen resumed talking about its future.
That future involved its concept car, a convertible SUV dubbed the T-Breeze, which is meant to match the global car market's growing appetite for SUVs while trying to get younger drivers interested in Volkswagen.
Hopes for 'dieselgate' to end
But this is the group's first European carshow since the diesel emissions scandal, where it emerged that Volkswagen had installed emissions-test cheating software in many of is diesel cars. No talk of the future would be complete without some statement as to how Volkswagen was progressing in clearing the clouds.
"I can't really say when the emissions issue will be over," Volkswagen Group chairman Matthias Müller told DW. "But we're in regular, constructive communication with the US authorities. Therefore we hope that this chapter could be closed in the near future."
But throughout the press conference, Müller kept a noticeably low profile. Instead it was VW brand chief Herbert Diess who closed the press conference. Diess promised that 2016 was going to be the year of "a new beginning."
Shift in corporate culture
He announced a new company culture that would see development more decentralized, with more "open communication" promised. "Internal processes will be more efficient," he said.
The comments were a nod to the popular analysis that a very rigid, authoritarian power structure and a culture of fear and inflexibility led to a cult of silence around problems within the company, and therefore to the conditions that created the so-called Dieselgate.
"We're making important decisions," Diess said. "We're thinking in new ways."
The shake-up is a "step in the right direction", said automotive industry analyst Stefan Bratzel of the FHDW University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. "It's an opportunity to be able to address new topics and set positive accents, especially in new niches and areas like electro-mobility."
But there's no moving forward without properly addressing what he views as a yet-unresolved issue.
"The emissions scandal still hangs over Volkswagen like a Damocles sword," said Bratzel. "The problem hasn't been solved; especially in the US there are still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the recall, the class action suits."
New models, new opportunities
But other industry observers say the emissions scandal is unlikely to follow Volkswagen forever.
"I don't think their reputation has necessarily been damaged in the long to medium term, not as much as we previously would have thought," said Ian Fletcher, principal analyst at IHS automotive. "Obviously there will still be a stigma against them, but people are still going out and buying their cars at the moment."
Even the sales hit VW recorded at the beginning of the year didn't only have to do with the emissions scandal, but with aging car models, he added. "The VW Golf is about five years old now, the Polo is old. Those are two of their key models. Now this emissions scandal has been a factor, of course, but one has to look at the bigger picture."