Classy new Quantum leaves VW bargain image far behind

To the people who build it, it's ausgezeichnetm - emblazoned across the back window of the car. But to the non-German-speaking VW buff, it's awesome. At least that's the way the Volkswagen of America management hopes more car buyers will judge the lap-of-luxury, compact Quantum, flagship of its line. At almost $14,000 for the base 4-door station wagon, the Quantum is the highest-priced car to come off the VW assembly line.

The Quantum is part of VW's plan to redefine its image, moving it from the common perception of VW as a low-cost car manufacturer to being a full-line producer of luxury cars, fast cars, and, of course, economy cars.

In a move to step up sales of its lowest-cost model, VW is replacing the Rabbit in the fall with a brand-new model, already being sold in Europe, and is debating the wisdom of dropping the Rabbit name altogether.

Long removed from the cheap-price days of the beetle, VW is pursuing an image of style, innovative engineering, high mileage, and performance in the cars it builds in the United States or ships across the Atlantic from Europe.

To sharpen its performance image among car buyers, the company has extended the swift kick of the VW Rabbit GTI to the Jetta and revved up the performance of the Vanagon with a water-cooled engine. The Scirocco expands the VW image with its sporty aura, fast pickup, and taut control on the curves.

But it's in the Quantum that VW is looking for class. This VW version of a luxury car is also available as a 4-door sedan, as well as a wagon, using the 5 -cylinder, 2.2-liter, 100-horsepower Audi engine beneath the hood in its gasoline model or a 4-cylinder turbodiesel rated at 66 hp.

In whatever form, the Quantum gives sufficient performance to satisfy most drivers, plus reasonable fuel economy as well.

The Quantum succeeded the old VW Dasher as an '82 model in the fall of 1981 and is the VW division's version of the Audi 4000. It is the Cadillac, if you will, of Wolfsburg, where the top management team hangs its hat.

The last time I drove a VW Quantum was a coast-to-coast trip in December of 1982. The car was a luxurious and technologically advanced turbodiesel model that performed flawlessly from San Diego to the East Coast. With a 5-speed manual transmission, I squeezed some 45 miles out of a gallon of fuel, on average, for the 3,000-mile trip. Not bad! The new '84 Quantum, if anything, is even better.

The Quantum features fully independent 4-wheel suspension, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and steel-belted radial tires. Wheelbase is 100.4 inches. Curb weight of the gas-engine Quantum sedan is 2,665 pounds, while the wagon is 80 pounds heavier. The turbodiesel sedan tips the scales at 2,579 pounds, and the wagon at 2,601.

Headroom is sufficient for most drivers, even with the optional sunroof in place. Legroom is excellent, both fore and aft, unless a very tall person up front has to push the seat too far back.

As to stability under trying road conditions, the Quantum proves up to the demand, whether in rain or on dry asphalt. Although the car is not an all-out sportster, its handling is quick and dependable.

Sales of the Quantum haven't been worth writing about to the home office in Germany, but some of the problem, as with the Rabbit, may lie in the name. Peter Weiher, sales chief for VW in the United States, once remarked: ''The Rabbit name is just too cute.'' The Quantum name may be open to criticism as well.

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