A Unique Car From a Company With Traditional Values
[As published on 9tro magazine, 26 March 2015]
Text and photos by Dr Ian Kuah.
The car business has such a wide remit that it tends to attract talent from engineers and designers to accountants and sales and marketing people. But the ones who really shine in this industry are those who look forward to coming to work every day because they love cars and like people.
“As much as car enthusiasts often get all obsessive about the machinery, if you are in sales or aftersales, you should never forget that this is a people industry,” explained Darren Ong, co-owner of VAG Singapore.
“My four partners and I, and our staff are all car enthusiasts. Apart from our technicians and admin people who are trained for their respective jobs, we hail from other backgrounds.”
“For instance, I was from the publishing industry and sold medical journals, while John Lee was in marketing,” he explained. “He was the one who came up with the VAG Singapore name, which we all agreed was catchy and does what it says on the tin.”
Like so many hobbyists turned professional, Darren’s path to his new calling started off from the other side of the fence as a customer. “I was a car nut with a 2004 Audi A4 1.8T and a job in the publishing world that occasionally took me to Europe to visit suppliers,” he recalled. “I used the spare time between meetings to look for special parts for my car that were not available in Singapore.”
“Back home I started to hang out at a local Audi/VW specialist workshop where I met John and Eugene who later became my partners,” he said. “At the time I was importing more and more OE Audi parts from Germany to sell to people who wanted to retro-fit components from models higher up the food chain.”
Knowing this aspect of upgrading Audi cars with the latest components means that Darren naturally fell into the role of heading up VAG’s Tuning & Performance Parts division.
In 2010, and Darren had been doing this for a year when he was introduced to Chan Kian-Ann, an Ingolstadt-trained Audi technician, widely regarded as the most experienced and innovative Audi and VW specialist on the island city state.
Some 30 years ago, Kian-Ann took a pay cut to join Auto GTI as an apprentice so he could work on Audi cars. A few years later, Premier Automobiles took over the Audi franchise and Kian-Ann spent the next 25 years there before leaving his position as workshop manager to work for an Audi dealer in China.
He returned to Singapore when his contract expired, and was about to re-join Premier when fate brought him and Darren together. That was when this bunch of Audi enthusiasts came up with the idea of starting their own specialist workshop to service Audi cars to OE dealer standards, offering tuning and upgrading as an add-on business.
Kian-Ann jumped at the chance to be part of his own show rather than just a small cog in a big machine, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now VAG’s workshop chief, he confesses to a 30-year addiction to the brand and drives a VAG upgraded A6 C6 himself.
Eugene is the electronics specialist and looks after the performance ECU re-mapping for VAG. His knowledge of Audi electronics is second to none, and his work and reputation extends to neighbouring countries as well.
“While our common bond is our love for cars, one of our objectives from day one was to cater to customers looking for more than just the good dealer service that is expected anyway,” Darren explained. “We wanted to offer our clients a wide range of modifications and bespoke upgrades as well.”
As the company’s name implies, they specialise in Audi and VW vehicles, with service and repair work on these related marques being their bread and butter.
“Along the way we found a group of hard-core Audi enthusiasts who came to us for service work and told us in no uncertain terms that they wanted to tune and individualise their cars,” Darren recalled. Needless to say, there was an instant natural synergy here, and tuning and customisation quickly formed the second tier of VAG’s business model.
“Facelifts are very popular, and we have done a lot of A4s and A5s in particular,” said Darren. “Because cars are so expensive in Singapore due to the high taxes, changing the bumpers, lights and updating the MMI costs about a third of trading it in for the factory face-lifted model.”
“Brakes are another popular upgrade,” he continued. “Although we will fit Brembo brakes if someone wants them, I use RS6 brakes on my S5, and we have found it is easier to sell a customer OE brakes like these as the customer has total peace of mind with factory parts.”
VAG also uses small tweaks that they have learned along the way like kevlar brake pads that reduce brake dust on wheels compared to the relatively soft OE pads. “We also use braided metal hoses on all our brake upgrades for better pedal feel,” said Darren.
However, while individualisation of customer cars to order is the second string to their bow, VAG Singapore does not work along the usual tuner lines. Aftermarket tuners traditionally use a variety of their own or third party components to modify a car.
The VAG team’s comprehensive knowledge of the Audi parts bin allows them to use some OE parts from models further up in the range as a recommended upgrade path in addition to components from respected names like Caractere, KW, H&R and Brembo amongst others. “Rather than wild modifications, which might cause unpredictable issues, we offer is practical performance upgrades that are sustainable and reliable,” said Darren. “This way, we and our customers can always be sure of the quality and reliability of every component.”
Styling, with aero, suspension, brakes and wheel upgrades are key factors in this individualisation programme, and to date VAG have personalised about 400 customer cars at various levels.
“Another one of our specialities is recoding of the on-board ECUs to accept newer OE systems such as later versions of the MMI,” he said. “To cut a long story short, we have gained a reputation for being able to facelift existing cars and fit the latest infotainment and other systems, hard-coding them into the CAN-BUS system seamlessly as the factory themselves would do.”
Maintaining their original West Service Centre in Enterprise Hub at Toh Guan, VAG opened their East Service Centre at the Premier@KakiBukit in late 2014. This is the latest of three such Government-built multi-storey automobile workshop hubs in Singapore where land is at a premium.
Many non-franchise workshops quickly drop in standards of cleanliness as they overflow with work, but it was very apparent that having everything spotlessly clean and well ordered is one of VAG’s operating principles. “We may not be quite as spick and span as McLaren’s Formula 1 operation, but we are very proud of the high standards we maintain in all aspects of our business,” said Darren.
Now employing 22 staff across two premises after just four years from a standing start, VAG Singapore has grown rapidly. Their owners certainly talk the talk, so I was interested to see if they also walk the walk.
With this small but perfectly formed 2,000 sq ft workshop with reception area and four lifts as the backdrop to my visit, I was intrigued to see the personalised Audis owned by the partners themselves.
Darren’s S5 was the most interesting car of the partner’s fleet, so I focused on this 2009 S5, which he bought off a customer as a totally stock Ocean Blue metallic car in March 2011.
“This was not my colour of choice,” said Darren. “I liked Daytona Grey, which is both masculine and relatively easy to keep clean, and had a bare metal re-spray undertaken as a priority.”
Part of the VAG business plan was to find a body and paint shop to service the aesthetic part of their operations. VAG took over a body workshop in February 2014 and re-branded it as CarCrafters to offer their customers an additional edge with customised bodywork.
The skilled craftsmen at CarCrafters were responsible for hand-forming the air vents aft of the front wheel arches in the S5’s original front wings. In combination with the Caractere front bumper and rear valance, Rieger side skirts and RS5 honeycomb front grille, these changes give the car its unique but relatively subtle looks.
Another thing you instantly notice about this S5 is its much more purposeful stance. Lowered by 30mm on KW V3 coil-overs, with fine-tuning by H&R anti-roll bars and SPC Performance adjustable upper control arms, its wheel arches are filled to brimming by 10.0J x 20-inch COR forged three-piece alloy wheels, shod with 275/30ZR20 Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres.
Although these American-made wheels are actually the same overall size all round, they have been custom-made with staggered offsets that make the rears appear wider. This gives the Audi Coupe a tougher look without affecting the electro-mechanical operation of its quattro system, which a difference in wheel and tyre sizes between front and rear axles certainly would.
This neat solution to an optical issue is an example of the level at which the VAG team thinks things through to ensure their modifications have no adverse effect on performance or safety.
The final chassis performance upgrade is the RS6 C7 front and rear brake kit with custom painted calipers. Upgraded stainless steel hoses and dust-free titanium kevlar brake pads top off this bigger anchor conversion.
As the sun was shining down hard during the photo shoot, I opened the door without noticing the A6 door handles with LED lighting. But small details like this are part of Darren’s obsession with fine details.
The upgrades in the S5’s cabin are so subtle I got behind the wheel thinking that there were no changes at all, totally forgetting that the base car is an S5 and not an RS5.
Together with the custom black piano lacquer trim inserts, which a new car buyer can specify from quattro GmbH, the RS5 sports steering wheel, gearshift knob, and aluminium door openers, plus the Audi sport pedals all looked so natural here that the illusion was complete.
What is not obvious until you fire up the MMI and go into the software suite is the fact that VAG’s electronics wizard has retrofitted the latest Audi MMI with 4G Google maps enabled on this six-year-old S5.
Together with VAG’s in-house ECU upgrade, tailored to take advantage of the improved intake ram air effect and lower exhaust back pressure, the car gains around 25hp with notably improved throttle response. On an island with a frustratingly low 90km/h highway speed limit, you don’t need any more power than this.
The uprated suspension, brakes and bigger boots are way ahead of the engine’s ability to make the chassis misbehave, but the taut, well-controlled ride is reassuring nonetheless.
However, what is more important to Darren, apart from showcasing his ideas and quality of work, is the satisfaction he gets from the deeper growl of the S5’s V8, the crisper response to the helm, and the second glances his car now gets from other enthusiasts.