HERNDON, Virginia -- Volkswagen Group of America got the alert less than a month after the redesigned Jetta sedan went on sale last September: First respondents to the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study complained about excessive wind noise.
That came as a surprise to Marc Trahan, 57, who had just joined VW as its quality guru from Audi of America.
"It was one of the most frustrating problems I've had," he says. "You would not expect that in this day and age."
Trahan's VW job is similar to one he held at Audi. The former dealership service technician is responsible for helping the VW brand bolster quality.
It's a key job. As VW aims for a sharp increase in its U.S. sales, its spotty quality reputation remains a major hurdle. Improving the brand's generally poor showing in the widely followed Power Initial Quality Study, in particular, remains a challenge. And it plays out in showrooms: One dealer says that competing brands point out VW's poor quality ratings to customers cross-shopping VW.
In the case of the Jetta wind noise, VW followed up the monthly J.D. Power report by tracking the problem and found fewer than 50 complaints. Armed with vehicle identification numbers, VW quality specialists went to the homes of 12 Jetta owners from October to February who complained and drove and inspected their cars.
By February, Trahan knew the two things that were causing the noise: a gap in the mirror housing and door seals that were too narrow.
Some of the problems were caused in production, so the assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico, improved inspection of the doors as vehicles rolled off the line.
On April 22 VW issued a required vehicle update for all 90,000 Jettas that had been produced and offered customers free pickup of their cars, free detailing and a $50 gift certificate for future service. By mid-August 82 percent of the Jettas were fixed, prompting VW to regard the campaign as a success. Trahan, executive vice president of group quality, wouldn't disclose how much the vehicle update cost VW.
As VW tries to boost U.S. sales, it has slashed prices on key models in the United States -- including the newest-generation Jetta and the redesigned 2012 Passat -- and added features aimed at U.S. consumers. It also built a factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., to produce the redesigned Passat.
VW executives know that to reach a U.S. sales target of 800,000 vehicles by 2018, the brand must improve its quality in Power surveys and testing by publications such as Consumer Reports.
Getting to 800,000 will be a stretch: Last year the VW brand sold 256,830 vehicles in the United States.