VW, the model for so many look-alikes, seeks an image all its own

''We feel a car needs a personality,'' asserts Dr. Wolfgang Lincke, head of passenger-car development for Volkswagenwerk AG.

''We call it handwriting,'' he adds.

Thus, searching for its place in the automotive world of the late 1980s, the '90s, and beyond, West Germany's largest vehiclemaker is trying to be innovative , distinctive, and impeccably up to date. Simply, it is trying to put its ''handwriting'' on its products so that they spell ''Volkswagen'' and not the competition.

The trouble today is that so many of the small-size cars on the road look alike, in other words, are derivations of the Rabbit. The excuse is that to achieve a slippery shape, plus adequate inside room, in a small car, there is only one way to go.

The VW designers and engineers disagree.

To prove it, several design shapes were displayed to a contingent of US automotive journalists this month, each distinctive in form and yet each with a super-low coefficient of drag (C.d.).

Pointing to the Rabbit, a successor is on its way - about two years off for Europe and six months later for the United States. The updated Rabbit, however, will be decidedly evolutionary in design, not revolutionary as in the shift from the long-familiar beetle shape to the Rabbit almost a decade ago.

One thing is sure, the new Rabbit will have a lower C.d. than the Rabbit of today and get better road mileage to boot. Average C.d. among all production cars in the world is 0.43. All VWs are under 0.40, ranging from 0.36 to 0.39. The old beetle 1200 was 0.48.

The trend is to far more aerodynamic shapes. ''Soon a C.d. of 0.30 will be common,'' Mr. Lincke says.

Yet, VW engineers note, appearance is important as well; in other words, a car's ''handwriting.''

''Aerodynamics is one thing but not everything,'' Lincke says.

Looking ahead, he says that VW, like all other carmakers, is emphasizing far more efficient transmissions and is planning a significant increase in the use of lightweight steel and plastics.

Yet the company can't pay more than 20 cents extra for each kilogram of reduction in weight for alternative materials and remain price-competitive in the showroom.

The living environment of cars is on the way up.

''We feel that future cars should be far more comfortable than the cars of today, such as a sharp reduction in noise inside the car,'' says Lincke.

Volkswagenwerk AG is following the worldwide trend of automakers to bypass the so-called air bag and emphasize passive safety belts in meeting federal government standards for 1984 and beyond.

Dr. Ulrich Seiffert, head of research, says the company is doing no research on air bags, ''although an air bag system cannot be ruled out for the future.'' VW, he says, could not go across the board with passive belts in 1984. ''We need more time to make changes in the body of the cars,'' he says.

''What we also need,'' he pleads, ''is more stability in the regulations.''

A carmaker takes a big chance, no matter what it builds.

''A car that is launched today has an average model lifetime of 7 to 9 years, '' Dr. Lincke notes. ''An individual car has a statistical lifetime of 12 years. Thus, about half the cars that are launched between now and the next two years will be on the road in the year 2000.''

''The public is very fickle,'' Lincke says.

In fact, one of the problems with the auto industry is its inability to react quickly to shifting conditions in the marketplace, not only in the kinds of cars that the public will buy, but also in the numbers that are built.

VW is now producing about 220 cars an hour here at its main plant in Wolfsburg - 4,000 a day in two shifts.

Because of a glut of unsold cars, the company is trying to cut two weeks, one in September and one in October, off the production schedule of its European plants.

Unlike in the US, the company cannot simply shut down the line. The decision is up to the works council, which is made up of representatives of management and labor. West German top management is far less flexible in how it runs its plants than carmakers in the US.

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