Passport

Is VW regretting the name of its signature SUV?

In 2003, Volkswagen launched its first ever SUV, the Touareg. ‘"Touareg" literally means "free folk" and is the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara,’" they wrote in a press release, explaining their decision to borrow the name of the nomadic North African ethnic group. "A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody ...

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

In 2003, Volkswagen launched its first ever SUV, the Touareg. ‘"Touareg" literally means "free folk" and is the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara,'" they wrote in a press release, explaining their decision to borrow the name of the nomadic North African ethnic group. "A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody the ideal of man's ability to triumph over the obstacles of a harsh land. To this day, they have maintained their strong character and self-reliance."

The "strong character" of the Tuareg -- as it's more typically spelled -- has been in the news lately. Tuareg rebels, formerly brought to Libya to be mercenaries for Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, have been steadily advancing though Northern Mali, capturing several military bases as well as the ancient city of Timbuktu. Believing themselves inadequately equipped to take on the heavily armed Tuareg fighters, a rogue group of Malian army officers overthrew the country's president last week.

In 2003, Volkswagen launched its first ever SUV, the Touareg. ‘"Touareg" literally means "free folk" and is the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara,’" they wrote in a press release, explaining their decision to borrow the name of the nomadic North African ethnic group. "A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody the ideal of man’s ability to triumph over the obstacles of a harsh land. To this day, they have maintained their strong character and self-reliance."

The "strong character" of the Tuareg — as it’s more typically spelled — has been in the news lately. Tuareg rebels, formerly brought to Libya to be mercenaries for Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, have been steadily advancing though Northern Mali, capturing several military bases as well as the ancient city of Timbuktu. Believing themselves inadequately equipped to take on the heavily armed Tuareg fighters, a rogue group of Malian army officers overthrew the country’s president last week.

The nominally Muslim Tuareg are reportedly working with local Islamists who have instituted Sharia law on some of the captured towns. Oxfam says that in some parts of the country as much as 70 percent of the population is facing "acute food insecurity."

I was curious as to whether, with the Tuareg in global headlines, Volkswagen was reconsidering its, in retrospect, odd, decision to name an SUV after an ethnic group that has been involved off-and-on in a low-level insurgency against the government of Mali and Niger since the 1960s. 

"I cannot comment on whether we would consider changing the name of the car. We are not politically involved with this tribe.  We don’t have an opinion on this yet," said Christian Buhlmann, a spokesman for Volkswagen AG. "I wasn’t even aware of that situation until you told me about it," he added.

Ron Sowell, a salesman at Martens Volvo and Volkswagen in Washington, DC, hadn’t heard the news in Mali either, and doesn’t think it will affect the car’s sales to its target audience, which he describes as "people pretty well educated, degrees, making more than $100,000".  He added, "I just think that an automobile and what a tribe does elsewhere doesn’t have anything to do with the car they’re driving."

What about VW customers a bit closer to the action? A salesman for Volkswagen based in Accra, Ghana said that "now everyone is hearing about the Touareg, but it hasn’t affected the popularity of the car."  People in Ghana "aren’t concerned with what is happening in other countries," said the salesman, who wished to remain anonymous.

Buhlmann added that he could only comment on "what kind of engines we have in the car and where the name came from." He said the name comes from VW’s view that people living in the desert are "peaceful," and that "our vehicle would be a very good desert vehicle."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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