Volkswagen regroups for a fresh attack on the US market

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Trounced by the recession, including a sharp drop-off in diesel-car sales and vigorous competition from the Japanese, Volkswagen of America is approaching its 30th anniversary in the United States with a crisp frontal attack on the marketplace.

Come fall, VW will launch both an all-new notchback Jetta and a slightly larger, less-angular successor car to the Rabbit, which will be renamed the Golf - the name by which the car is known all over the world with the exception of the US.

The Rabbit name, as well as the image, has simply worn out. Besides, it was ''just too cute,'' according to Peter Weiher, head of sales for Volkswagen of America, Inc.

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Getting set for the transition in names, the US subsidiary of Volkswagenwerk AG continues to emphasize its West German roots, with help from a new array of specially equipped and priced Wolfsburg-edition car models.

VW is also touting its European-delivery plan, in which a buyer has to nail down a sale by May 26 and take delivery by next September. For his trouble, the buyer gets a free plane ticket to Frankfurt, transportation to the car-delivery site, and free shipment of the car to the US.

VW expects to increase its European-delivery program from 1,500 in 1983 to 5, 000 in '84.

After a stunning success last spring with its Wolfsburg-edition cars, Volkswagen of America has expanded the list from four a year ago to seven in '84 . Conspicuously missing is the Jetta, which is in short supply. James R. Fuller, head of the VW division in the United States, says, ''We can't begin to get enough of them to meet the demand.''

VW sales are up 33 percent over 1983 for the first 100 days of the year. The Vanagon is up 55 percent, and the Rabbit, 22 percent. Even the dieselized Rabbit is up 10 percent.

Jetta sales are up 145 percent over a year ago - 40,000 so far in 1984, compared with 18,000 in '83. The Jetta, in fact, is expected to pass up the bread-and-butter Rabbit (Golf) within two or three years to become VW's best-selling car in the US.

Beefed up with the 1.8-liter, high-output Rabbit GTI engine, the price of the Wolfsburg Scirocco has been slashed 8 percent - from $10,870 for the base car to air conditioning, sunroof, and cruise control.

The Quantum also has the GTI engine as standard.

The 4-speed gasoline-engine Wolfsburg Rabbit is base-priced at $6,995 but offers a choice of air conditioning or sunroof/cassette-stereo radio at no extra charge. Both the Scirocco and Golf convertible get 39-percent larger fuel tanks.

Power steering in the Vanagon is standard for the first time. The new 82 -horsepower, 1.9-liter, water-cooled engine is said to be 50 percent quieter than the air-cooled engine of the past.

VW is readjusting its sights to accommodate the ongoing shift in consumer attitudes toward cars. ''What's in fashion today is ownership for a long time,'' says Mr. Fuller. ''It's no longer cool to change a car every two or three years.''

The new Golf will go into production in the western Pennsylvania assembly plant this summer after a $200 million switchover. ''There are no Tokyo-at-night electronic displays,'' asserts Fuller, ''and no voice boxes. That's not our style.''

US-built cars will account for a projected 40 percent of VW auto sales in 1984.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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