VW pickup so 'hot' it's hard to pick up

"I predict that we will have 100 percent of the domestically built compact, front-wheel-drive, pickup-truck market," James W. McLernon, president of Volswagen of America Inc., quipped last fall at the unveiling in northern Vermont of the company's 1980-model cars.

He is not likely to be proved wrong: "We'll be the only one in the market," he said with a smile.

Now that the smartly styled, fuel-injection truck -- designed for the US market and built only at the VW plant in western Pennsylvania -- has actually arrived on the road, the company is hard pressed to meet the demand.

In fact, VW is building a thousand Rabbits a day, half of them diesels, in two shifts at its rambling, two-year-old assembly plant near Pittsburgh. One of every 8 vehicles coming off the line is a pickup. Thus, about 1 in 16 VW Rabbits is a diesel-powered pickup truck.

If VW could increase the output, there is no doubt it could sell them. Some dealers are quoting a waiting time of up to a year in some parts of the country.

What makes the pickup special? Certainly not the price -- just under $6,000 to start. Perhaps the most attractive features are the ride and front-wheel-drive handling. Some buyers are saying that it handles even better than the Rabbit sedan, because of the extended wheelbase.

I will say that of all the vehicles I've driven in the last six months, the new US-built pickup from VW is one of the best.

Still, there are some annoyances, but none of them very big. For one thing, I couldn't get the brake light on the dash- board to stay off, but that is more of an adjustment problem than anything else. Also, there was a wind noise on the driver's side of the cab. Again, the window could probably be adjusted to get rid of the problem.

True to the reputation of the West German VW Rabbit, the mileage was good, even for the gas-engine vehicle I drove -- somewhere around 30 m.p.g. for an average. But with a diesel and 5-speed manual transmission, the anticipated mileage should check out in the mid-40s or better.

But drivers of the VW pickup may run into a problem on parkways that are restricted to automobiles only. If you have occasion to drive frequently on a parkway, such as in New York or Boston, you may be shunted off by the police, or worse, get a traffic ticket. I was told by the Metropolitan District Police in Boston that the VW pickup truck was, obviously, a pickup truck -- and no discussion. Commercial vehicles, even those registered as cars, cannot use the parkways.

No matter, VW still wants the pickup to be known as a pickup. And unlike other pickups, the cargo box is not bolted on but is an integral part of the vehicle itself.

Paradoxically, on the Palisades Interstate Parkway along the Hudson River in New York-New Jersey, the VW pickup is barred unless it has a cab on the back. Then it can move along with car traffic.

The pickup, with a maximum payload of a little more than 1,100 pounds, will probably be around for a long time. While it has only a 6-foot bed at the moment, ultimately the company can be expected to come out with a long-bed pickup to compete with the Japanese. Also, a 4-wheel-drive version may be somewhere down the road.

Meanwhile, most people will use the VW Rabbit pickup as a pleasure vehicle, anyway, and not to carry a load. That's the kind of vehicle it is. Like the old VW beetle, and especially the ragtop version of it, the VW-made minitruck could catch on as an "in" vehicle among buyers and establish its own distinct identify in the marketplace.

VW dealers themselves are very high on the pickup, and particularly if it has a diesel engine. Anything with a diesel is a hot item today. "I think if we had a diesel motorcycle, it would sell," a spokesman for VW of America said.

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