VW will give Rabbit a turbo diesel to boost US sales

Grasping the wheel of a new Quantum turbocharged diesel, I flash around the Volkswagen proving ground here, 15 miles north of VW's headquarters city of Wolfsburg and not far from the East German border.

The car performs beautifully - twisting around sharp bends in the road and hitting its stride on the straightaway.

The Quantum turbo diesel is one more effort of the West German car manufacturer to highlight its heritage, West German engineering at its best.

Development of the engine began in the 1970s for use in the integrated research Volkswagen (IRVW), built to show that both performance and safety could be achieved without compromising fuel economy.

VW, the world's leading producer of diesel passenger-car engines and the first to build small-output diesels in large numbers, has increased the power output of the turbocharged Quantum, successor to the Dasher, by almost 25 percent. This comes close to rivaling VW's 1.7-liter spark-ignition gasoline engine, while developing even higher torque when registering fewer revolutions per minute.

Come fall, VW will unleash its sport Rabbit on the US car buyer, a car that's been on sale in Europe for the past four years with great success.

The Rabbit GTI, in fact, will set the image that VW wants to project: Performance, economy, and, once again, German engineering expertise.

''The Rabbit GTI is only nine-tenths of a second slower, 0 to 60 miles per hour, than the Porsche 928,'' says a VW spokesman from the United States. It won't come cheap, of course - the price has not yet been set - but VW hopes to sell it for around $8,500. With that kind of performance and price, it should get off to a really fast start.

A year ago VW launched a crash program to prepare the GTI for the US.

VW sales have been dawdling in the slow lane for a long time, victim of a devastating worldwide economy plus severe competition from the Japanese. Now the company is trying hard to recapture its ''beetle'' image of high-quality cars at a competitive price.

In his first briefing of a group of US auto writers since taking over the wheel of VW in January, Dr. Carl H. Hahn, who once headed up Volkswagen of America (1959-64) and until early this year was head of Continental Gummi-Werke AG, Hannover, says that the largest West German carmaker is trying to reemphasize its historic image as it looks for a way out of its sales dilemma.

''We intend to be in conformity with our tradition, our image, and capitalize on the expectations which people have when they think of Volkswagen,'' he declares.

Volkswagen is having major problems all over the world - not only in the US, but in Mexico, South America, and Europe. The Rabbit GTI will bring excitement to the VW logo in the US, and the turbocharged Quantum diesel will further improve a very good car.

Thus, while ''going back to basics'' in its approach to the auto market, as Mr. Hahn describes it, VW also wants to project an image of a company that's fully up to date and responsive to the demands of the marketplace.

Far from being the single-car manufacturer it was in the early days of the beetle, the company is trying to cut a wide swath in the marketplace with state-of-the-art cars.

Looking ahead, the VW chief hints at a 4-wheel-drive VW, a smaller version of the $35,000 Audi Quattro which hit the road in the US last spring.

''We want to bring out a lower-cost, 4-wheel-drive Audi than the Quattro,'' he says, ''and this concept could also be given to our other division as well.

''Besides performance, a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is also good for safety, such as driving on snow and ice. There is nothing better than a 4-wheel-drive car to go over snow and ice, both uphill and downhill.''

Does this mean that VW is ready to abandon the low-price automobile market?

''We must learn to recognize that the American market is hectic and moves back and forth, so we must learn to live with it. This cannot be done with one vehicle alone.

''We need a variety of cars, not only in the Porsche-Audi division but in the Volkswagen division as well. We can't afford to neglect the Rabbit in the US.''

Will VW sell a car in the US that is smaller than the Rabbit, such as the Polo now marketed in other countries?

''The market for new cars below the Rabbit in terms of price and volume, under US conditions, is a limited market,'' he says.

As for the Rabbit itself, the GTI should help the aging car to recoup some of its appeal in the US. A replacement for the Rabbit is still at least two years off. It will be an evolutionary change, not a dramatic shift as from the rear-drive, air-cooled beetle to the front-drive, water-cooled Rabbit.

''The Rabbit GTI has been a big success in Europe and gives prestige to the basic Rabbit as well,'' says Hahn. This has been most instrumental in the stability of the Rabbit in Europe.''

Meanwhile, the West German vehiclemaker is struggling to turn a profit although a red-ink bath this year seems far more likely.

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