Editor's note: The American version of the Passat kept the independent rear suspension found in the European Passat. An earlier version of this story misstated that feature.
DETROIT -- Volkswagen's ambitious U.S. sales goals, now drifting out of reach, once looked so tantalizingly close.
Back in 2007, the automaker vowed to crank up U.S. sales of its VW brand to 800,000 vehicles a year by 2018. It was a dizzying sum, requiring more than a tripling of its volume at that time. Many in the industry scoffed.
But with steady precision, VW got the skeptics to take a second look. It launched a lower-priced, Mexico-made Jetta and built a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that began churning out a new Passat that better fit American tastes and budgets. VW sales doubled between 2009 and 2012, to nearly 440,000, lifting hopes that 800,000 was doable.
"It was amazing," said Wade Walker, owner of a VW store near Montpelier, Vermont, recalling those heady days. "It was a magic mix. The dealers were excited. Customers were flocking to the vehicles."
Today, the magic is gone. Competition has heated up, the Jetta and Passat have cooled off, and with back-to-back yearly declines, VW has missed out on a key boom period in U.S. auto sales -- a sore spot with dealers who made big bets on sustained sales growth. In 2014, VW sold 366,970 vehicles, not far ahead of where it was in 2011.
Few people outside VW believe the company still has a chance to get to 800,000 vehicles in the original time frame. The target, says Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, "is beyond lofty at this point."
VW, for its part, has had to recalibrate its message, if not its target. From the beginning, the 800,000-vehicle target for the VW brand was part of a larger goal at Volkswagen Group of America to sell 1 million cars a year in the U.S. by 2018, with the remainder coming from Audi and its other luxury marques. Audi is on pace to pass the 200,000 mark this year.
At the Detroit auto show this month, Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn reaffirmed the million-vehicle figure, but he and other executives declined to say whether VW's portion would be less than 800,000 vehicles.
To hit the goal, Caldwell noted, VW will have to increase sales by 100,000 vehicles in each of the next four years, a monumental task in the hypercompetitive U.S. market.
"How they're going to do it is a mystery," Caldwell said.