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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5th Generation VW Rolled Out

WOLFSBURG, Germany -- They do not call it Motown or Motor City, but this industrial burg in the heaths of Lower Saxony now has a nickname that evokes its status as Germany's answer to Detroit.

For the next six weeks, Wolfsburg, the birthplace and home of Volkswagen, will be known as Golfsburg.

The mayor of Wolfsburg, Rolf Schnellecke, ordered the name to be changed on road signs, official letterheads, municipal web sites and some public buildings to help promote Volkswagen's introduction of its new Golf, the fifth generation of the best-selling hatchback. "We wanted to do it as a sign of sympathy and friendship for Volkswagen," Schnellecke said. "The Golf is the economic base of the company. If it is a success, the whole city and region will prosper."

The mayor's campaign, which will run through the period of the Golf's rollout, has drawn complaints from critics who say the name change is hokey and, worse, an unseemly bid by a German city to further the business goals of its largest employer.

The critics, Schnellecke shoots back, are missing the point. "They don't understand the special relationship between VW and Wolfsburg," he said. "This is not like any other German city."

Indeed, Wolfsburg is the quintessential company town -- a city of 125,000 that was founded in 1938 by order of Hitler to turn out Europe's first mass-produced vehicle, the Volkswagen, or People's Car.

To say Wolfsburg depends on Volkswagen the way Detroit depends on General Motors does not begin to capture the symbiosis. Six decades after its founding, Wolfsburg remains a support system for a gargantuan car factory.

These days, that factory is ramping up for Volkswagen's most important product introduction in a decade. Since replacing the ubiquitous Beetle in 1974, the Golf has been Volkswagen's best-selling model. Until last year, when it was overtaken by the Peugeot 206, it was the top-selling car in Europe.

Volkswagen hopes the new Golf will reclaim that title. Each time the company redesigns the car -- it has done so five times in 29 years -- Europe's automobile industry holds its breath.

"This is huge," said Thomas Aney, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Frankfurt. "Even Volkswagen says it is basically a two-model company -- the Golf and the Passat -- with the emphasis on the Golf."

Expectations are running high. About 400 reporters descended on Wolfsburg last Monday to watch Volkswagen's chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, roll out the car. More will swarm over it at the Frankfurt auto show next month.

At first glance, the new Golf looks a lot like the old Golf. Volkswagen has added a few gadgets like electronically adjustable seats. And the car is slightly longer and wider than its predecessor.

The company hopes to sell 135,000 new Golfs in 2003 and 600,000 next year. It has not announced when the car will go on sale in the United States, where it trails the Jetta sedan in sales. "They have a lot of momentum behind the launch," Aney said.

The Golf is important to Wolfsburg not only because it accounts for 15 percent of Volkswagen's total unit sales, but also because it is actually produced here, in the sprawling factory that dates from the 1940s.

The company has turned over a cavernous production hall to the Golf, outfitting it with the latest in robotic machines. It assembles other models, including a minivan, in Wolfsburg, but the Golf is its bread and butter.

Though much of Volkswagen's assembly line is mechanized, the factory still employs 25,000 workers.