NO-one needs reminding that the formal motor trade in Zimbabwe has been on the back foot for donkeys’ years. Three reasons stand out. In no particular order, these are the perennial shortage of hard currency, the government’s insistence on imposing what amount to punitive import duties on new cars under the pretext of “protecting” local assembly that never was viable in the first place, and finally, the once virtually uncontrolled influx of grey market used vehicles that could not find buyers in their source countries.
All this should tell you that making an investment in the mainstream motor trade in Zimbabwe has been fraught with problem, especially as manufacturers set minimum standards for official importers in terms of brand support. Given the limited volume potential of the domestic market, the investment that is required in bricks and mortar, in trained personnel and in the provision of technical support and parts supplies is disproportionately high.
These factors could well account for the transient nature of dealer support patterns in Zimbabwe and none more so than in the case of Volkswagen, a true giant in global terms and long-time leader of the passenger car market in South Africa.
For very many years, Puzey & Payne were the country-wide VW franchise holders but towards the end of the last decade, a new interloper operating under the acronym Fcm Motors took over the baton. For reasons I have no knowledge of, Volkswagen apparently terminated this arrangement around 2016 and appointed Paris-based giant CFAO as the official brand representative.
CFAO has its fingers in many commercial pies but is especially strong across Africa in the automotive sector. Indeed, until Nissan South Africa decided to take control of its own brand’s activities in Zimbabwe, CFAO was the name behind the Japanese company’s fortunes in this country. It was therefore this situation that allowed CFAO to enter into an arrangement with Wolfsburg.
The next step was to find appropriate premises to operate from and under the leadership of seasoned motor man, Marius Prinsloo, CFAO Motors Zimbabwe, to give the importer its full title, set up shop at what was a landmark fuel station at 58a Golden Stairs Road.
The intention was to develop without delay the decidedly old premises into something much more modern and much more in line with the slick image demanded by Wolfsburg and expected by customers of the VW brand.
While all the construction activity was going on, Prinsloo moved on to look after CFAO automotive interests in East Africa and Sebastian Benning took over the reins in Harare with the objective of rejuvenating the fortunes of Germany’s automotive giant from modernised premises designed to offer one-stop facilities covering sales, parts and service.
Informal research on my part suggests that the halcyon days when Beetles and Kombis were to be seen in all corners of the country and customers were imbued with an emotional attachment to the VW brand, have long since passed by. For sure though, that attachment is incredibly entrenched in South Africa where the VW brand is almost regarded as something of a local institution.
What this telegraphs is that CFAO Volkswagen has more to do than sell cars. It is incumbent upon the organisation to re-establish consumer confidence in the VW brand as a whole and to banish perceptions of high parts prices and indifferent back-up service.
That’s not to suggest that those perceptions have real foundation but the mere fact they exist is an obstacle in itself. So, it was with more than a measure of interest that I attended the 3 November launch of the new glass-cased CFAO VW showroom situated on the outskirts of Harare on the Golden Stairs Road.
Truth be known, I made it my business to visit the premises ahead of the glitz and glamour event to get a better idea of exactly what’s behind this intended rejuvenation of a brand with which I have to declare a life-long connection.
My primary interest was to establish the technical credentials of the CFAO dealership especially as modern VWs (along with virtually every other make) are wholly reliant on diagnostic equipment to effect proper servicing, not just in terms of fault detection but also in terms of implementing any software upgrades determined by the factory.
The answers were provided by Aftersales Manager, Christo Lombard, who advised that the very latest factory-supplied diagnostic equipment has been brought in from Germany and just as importantly, that the staff assigned to utilising this vital equipment have been fully-trained at the VW Training Centre in Mid-Rand. Further, training is an ongoing process to ensure that the workshops are always up to speed with technical developments.
Also of great relevance is that CFAO VW has a permanent on-line connection to the Wolfsburg factory should assistance be needed in terms of diagnosing and solving any unusual technical issues that might arise. And in answer to my question about suitability of lubricants used with reference to the greater demands made by turbocharged engines, Lombard advised that exactly the same brand as used on the VW production line is stocked in the CFAO workshops.
Just for the record, I can reveal that plans are also afoot to provide full service facilities for VW commercial vehicles.
As for parts, it is encumbent upon an authorised dealer to use factory originals and so it is in this instance. Happily, CFAO advised that attention has been paid to pricing of those parts which, they claim, will be significantly more attractive than feedback suggests was the norm in prior years.
So, back to centre court and the official opening of the stylish if compact new showroom where guests were welcomed by MD Seb Benning to an area that will be home to various VW models from Polo Hatchback and Saloon, to Golf and Jetta, Passat and Touareg, Caddy, Multivan and Caravelle and also to Tiguan and Amarok.
It was the last two models that starred after Guest of Honour, German Ambassador Dr Thorsten Hutter, had delivered an informative and entertaining speech that outlined the massive contribution made by Volkswagen AG in terms trade generation and employment opportunities created across the globe.
The new Tiguan compact SUV, presented in this instance in 2.0 TDI guise, has been a roaring success all over the world and is in such demand in South Africa that VW executives have had to forego early personal tenure in the interests of releasing as many vehicles as possible onto the market. Good looks are matched by quality finishes and improved practicality over the original model so this is one VW model that definitely deserves a closer look.
Competing with the Tiguan for the attention of guests was the latest iteration of the Amarok double cab, in this instance equipped with the bi-turbo 2.0 TDI motor. This is a vehicle with a surprising level of hidden off-road talent to go along with its class-leading ride comfort and refinement and judging by the number of guests clambering all round it, the Amarok seems to have established itself as a brand favourite in Zimbabwe.
An important matter in terms of aftersales service is the issue of warranties and in this regard, CFAO in conjunction with VW, has come up trumps with a set of confidence-inspiring back-up proposals that vary a tad by model but which include 2-year unlimited mileage cover for many models. I suggest you contact the importer for specific information.
In summary, it was pleasing to detect a genuine enthusiasm from the staff of CFAO who acknowledge that there is a big job ahead to get the VW brand back where it belongs. The investment already made in terms of facilities and service support represents a good start but without the right people and a parallel desire to demonstrate that the go matches the show, that investment will flounder. Judging by the attitude of the people at the wheel of CFAO VW and the fact that VWSA is committing more resources in the direction of sub-Sahara Africa, there’s every likelihood of a brand revival, albeit that prevailing market conditions in Zimbabwe will make the task harder still.