3 questions for Tim Mahoney, VW marketing chief

DETROIT (AP) ? Volkswagen AG’s U.S. sales surged 26 percent last year, boosted by new products and an aggressive marketing campaign that included a memorable Super Bowl commercial with a pint-sized Darth Vader.

Tim Mahoney, the German automaker’s top product and marketing executive for the United States, credits well-timed product launches, key quality and safety awards, along with memorable TV commercials, for Volkswagen’s sales success.

While Volkswagen 2012 sales growth may not be as large as last year’s, the automaker does expect a double-digit increase. It’s just too early to tell if that percentage increase will start with a one or a two, Mahoney says.

Mahoney, who joined Volkswagen in May, sat down with The Associated Press at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to talk about those and other topics and even revealed a few tidbits about this year’s secret Super Bowl commercial. Below are excerpts editing for length and clarity.

What’s the secret to Volkswagen’s sales success?

? Volkswagen’s sales surge started with the launch and repositioning of Jetta in late 2010, which resulted in over 170,000 of the vehicles being sold in the U.S. last year, Mahoney says.

But things really got rolling after the debut of a Volkswagen commercial featuring a little boy dressed as Darth Vader, who brings a 2012 Passat to life using “The Force” ? with a little help from his parents and the car’s remote start feature. Since the humorous ad first aired nearly a year ago, it’s been viewed more than 48 million times on You Tube.

“There was a lot of really positive momentum that went on up until the late summer when we launched Passat and then Beetle,” Mahoney says.

Later in the year, the Passat was named 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year and nine of the automaker’s models were designated top safety picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“It’s sort of a perfect storm, in a good way, of the things coming together for the brand,” Mahoney says.

How do diesel and hybrid models fit into your product and marketing strategies?

? Diesel, which offers better mileage and lower emissions than traditional gas, has been an important part of Volkswagen’s environmental strategy and the introduction of the hybrid Jetta later this year will add to that, Mahoney says.

Diesel cars and trucks represented about 21 percent of Volkswagen’s U.S. sales last year.

For many drivers, the decision to buy a diesel vehicle, which can be significantly more expensive than comparable gas models, is a personal one rather than a practical one. Volkswagen’s TV commercials try to focus on that, touting benefits like the extended range of the vehicles, he says.

The diesel version of the Passat can travel nearly 800 miles on a single tank of fuel.

“As a marketer I like it, because it’s something no one else has,” Mahoney says.

Meanwhile, the new hybrid, which was developed with the U.S. market in mind but will be sold globally, will help renew interest in Jetta, which was last redesigned two years ago.

“The packaging is great. It’s the fastest in its segment, it’s quick and at 45 mpg it’s a good value for the customer,” Mahoney says.

So what’s this year’s Super Bowl commercial about?

? Unfortunately, most of the details of this year’s Super Bowl commercial are still secret, Mahoney says.

But Mahoney does say that this year Volkswagen is going with one 60-second spot instead of two 30-second ones and that the ad will feature the iconic Beetle.

“It is, I would say, in some ways a metaphor for the brand,” Mahoney says. “It’s certainly a Beetle spot, but with the way we constructed it, it’s really talking about VW as a whole.”