VW cleans up at the What Car? awards, eyebrows are raised

EDITOR'S BLOG: The scandal hit car company is still making mighty motors.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 15 Jan 2016

Now here’s a thing. Some good news for Volkswagen. The German manufacturer which is currently enduring the most sustained corporate scandal in recent history has scooped almost half the annual What Car? annual awards for 2016. This has raised a few eyebrows.

Full disclosure is in order here. What Car? is MT’s sister publication and part of Haymarket Media Group. One’s first reaction was a barely suppressed guffaw. When I walked across the floor to see its editor Jim Holder he could barely suppress a small grin.

But he is entirely unrepentant and his explanation is clear: ‘When we began the judging process, the VW emissions scandal was in full swing. However, our guiding principle is to recommend the best cars on sale today.

'We have tested all cars with our unrivalled rigour and scrutiny on a level playing field with all of their rivals. Regardless of the scandal, the VW Group still builds cars that rank among the very best on the road and, tested against our criteria covering all of the rational reasons that consumers choose one car over another, the results are clear to see.'

The whole point of What Car? is that it’s the consumer’s advisor. It tells people the best decision when they are spending the largest pile of cash they ever will after buying a house. (And who can afford to do that any more?) It’s also the case that the VW engines which were subjected to the devilish cheating software aren’t manufactured any more. Their age was the reason that it was thought necessary to cheat to get through US emission controls in the first place.

This is little consolation to those drivers who are driving around in them still waiting for the fix, nor those who have yet to discover what impact Dieselgate will have on resale values. Although the average consumer may be less worried by emissions concerns than the guardians of corporate and environmental probity - though this morning it looks as though several other European carmakers may have been dragged into the scandal. 

But the fact remains that What Car’s test panel - very earnest guys and gals a lot of whom wear shorts - decided that when it comes to choosing what is available on the market now VW makes a lot of the winners.

This is in some ways not surprising. VW is the largest manufacturer in the world and comprises both the mother brand from Wolfsburg plus Audi, Porsche, SEAT and Skoda. VW has scooped the top award for Car Of The Year in four of the last five years. This year it’s the Audi A4 which I tested in September. 

One simply cannot get away from the fact that, despite being stuck in the middle of a mega-scandal, the company still makes impressive cars which are industry leaders. Indeed they are known for not making cars down to a price. The central VW mother brand makes wafer-thin margins. With the huge financial costs of settling the scandal this may well have to change.

There is much going on in the car industry at the moment. Many automotive companies have just enjoyed record sales years in the UK. Over in the states - where their industry needs a good kick up the behind - Tesla is charging ahead and Apple is working on a car. Even Google admits this week it is thinking about four wheels but accepting it’s currently way off the pace. 

In Detroit this week Google’s John Krafcik admitted 'We are going to need a lot of help in the next stage of our project. We’re going to be partnering more and more and more — you can count on it.'

As Audi chairman Rupert Stadler noted when I saw him three months ago, the US tech companies are going to find making cars far harder than they ever thought. A lot tougher than drones which before long will suffer their own scandal when one of them flies into the engine of a 737 somewhere while it is coming into land.

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