Volkswagen, with a new U.S. leader, aims for a revival

Scott Keogh, who heads Audi of America, will replace Hinrich J. Woebcken, who reorganized Volkswagen of America in his three years as president and chief executive.

–Michael Sohn / AP Photo

Volkswagen is taking another crack at becoming a major force in the U.S. auto market, now that it appears to have put the worst of its emissions-cheating scandal behind it.

The German company’s sales plunged after it admitted in 2015 that it had engineered a scheme to help millions of diesel cars evade emissions limits. The company had built a growing following in the United States and elsewhere by claiming that those vehicles cut tailpipe emissions and traveled farther on a gallon of fuel than gasoline-powered cars. In reality, software in the cars deceived regulators about how much nitrogen oxide was being released.

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On Wednesday, in hopes of accelerating its recovery, Volkswagen named an American executive instrumental in increasing sales of its Audi luxury cars to take over its U.S. operations.

The executive, Scott Keogh, who heads Audi of America, will replace Hinrich J. Woebcken, who reorganized Volkswagen of America in his three years as president and chief executive. Keogh will be the first American citizen in that role in 25 years.

Volkswagen dealers welcomed the change. They pointed out that Audi’s sales in the United States more than doubled in the six years that Keogh, 49, ran the luxury brand. He helped position its cars in the same league as models from automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

“Scott’s a pretty intense guy, and he’s been instrumental at Audi,” said Jeff Williams, owner of Volkswagen and Audi dealerships in Lansing, Michigan. “Stability is the key with that brand. If he can bring some enthusiasm and stability, then I’m very optimistic.”

One of Keogh’s main tasks will be winning back the trust of customers like Derrick Oxender, a commercial-property owner in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He once owned a 2012 diesel Jetta and his wife still drives a diesel Audi Q5 sport utility vehicle.

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“They lost quite a bit of credibility because they knew they were scamming on the diesels,” Oxender said.

Keogh does have some advantages. Volkswagen has a lineup stocked with SUVs, a lucrative and increasingly popular segment of the auto market. The company is also planning a line of electric vehicles.

“I like their chances,” said Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor at Kelley Blue Book, a market researcher.