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Behind the Wheel

Corrado: VW's Tardy, Snappy Coupe

September 15, 1989|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

For creaking historians who can remember when a Volkswagen cost $1,500 and only came in one shape, the 1990 Corrado represents a remarkably swift passage of time and technology.

Yesterday's four-cylinder VW Bug-Beetle produced 30 horsepower and barely exceeded the speed limit in a stiff tail wind.

Today's four-cylinder VW Corrado (from the Spanish for to sprint ) produces 158 horsepower and, with a top speed of 140 m.p.h., is faster than the Mercedes 300E.

Of course, the price of this VeeDub has appreciated slightly since the '50s. It's up to $17,900. But for a car with a performance-value ratio very much in line with the current herd of 2+2 sport coupes, it could well be worth every pfun pfennig.

The progress of Volkswagen in areas other than automotive development hasn't been quite so encouraging.

Although Volkswagen leads all manufacturers in the European market, U.S. sales that once were 500,000 cars a year are down to 150,000 units.

Asian competition. America's general indifference to gasoline prices and fuel-stingy cars. A vapid dollar versus a powerful German mark. All have combined to drop Volkswagen United States Inc. to seventh among 23 importers.

A U.S. sales improvement might have occurred if the supercharged Corrado had been introduced in this country when it went on sale in Europe almost a year ago.

An unveiling of this U.S. replacement for the venerable Scirocco was, indeed, scheduled for February. That would at least have put the Corrado on line at a time when sport coupes (such as the Ford Probe, Nissan 240SX, Plymouth Laser and Mitsubishi Eclipse) were anybody's buy and far from the thundering herd they now represent.

But in December, James Fuller, head of Volkswagen United States, was killed when Pan American Flight 103 exploded over Scotland. His death, said a company spokesperson, "definitely contributed" to delaying Corrado deliveries until this month--and consequently arriving last in its American niche.

Despite its late start, said William Young, Fuller's replacement, the Corrado still represents Volkswagen's renewed attention to "a more consumer-focused, value-focused product line" that could return the company from the fringes of the small-car market.

"Basically, we are back in the marketplace and rebuilding the company," Fuller said during the recent Coronado press introduction of the Corrado. "We are confident that this technically advanced car will change the way people think of Volkswagen."

Other VWs on the Way

That might only come next year when Volkswagen broadens its U.S. line with two more vehicles--the four-door Passat sedan and wagon, both with automatic transmission; and a snappy Golf Rallye.

For the time being, however, the appeal of the Corrado--available only in five-speed and marketed somewhat evasively as a "sports car," rather than a "sports coupe"--will be too narrow to change much beyond the performance of VW disciples willing to trade up from their spirited 16-valve GTIs.

Those motorists not particularly loyal to VW will find the Corrado offers few irresistible advantages over established sport coupes.

Its base price is $3,400 higher that that of, say, the Nissan 240SX. It certainly is not as fast as the turbocharged Mitsubishi Eclipse/Plymouth Laser. In terms of engineering and prestige, it offers no challenge to the Porsche 944 S2.

Yet in so many areas--from looks, through a list of little luxuries to its price-value quotient--the Corrado is an impressive addition to today's car bazaars.

Strong on Styling

Styling, although certainly reminiscent of the Honda CRX and the Volkswagen Scirocco, is a strong point. The car is softly squared and has that look of something poised in starting blocks. There's much tradition in its fender flares, sloping hood and open headlights. And it all carries the signature of Wilhelm Karmann, who has been with Volkswagen since the 1949 Beetle convertible.

It is rewarding to see such niceties as a tilt steering wheel, performance-trip computer, air conditioning, six-speaker sound system, electric mirrors, central locking and, oh joy, power windows that function even with the engine off , as standard equipment on a small and relatively inexpensive package. Forgotten open windows can also be closed from outside the car by simply turning the door key beyond the locking detent.

The front-drive Corrado is the only car, other than Porsche, that comes with an automatic rear spoiler. It eases up into the slipstream at 45 m.p.h., retracts at 12 m.p.h. and adds or subtracts about 66 pounds of rear-end lift.

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