Curbside Classic: Volkswagen Quantum – The Bad Old Days

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Those of our readers who keep current on automotive news may have noticed snippets about Volkswagen’s lackluster sales growth.  Some bloggers have expressed vindication by the sales slowdown of the Jetta in particular, proving the alleged failure of VW’s Americanization of its sedans.  But do that model and the Tennessee-built Passat mark a return to the bad old days of stodgy, slow selling cars?  Let’s look to this German-built Quantum, in unfashionable four cylinder, front-drive, automatic trim, for some context.

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Straight from the days of VW’s rapid US market decline, this vehicular equivalent of a pocket protector did little as an upmarket offering to shore up the company’s declining North American profits in the face of a strong Deutschmark and stodgy image.

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Don’t get me wrong; I find Quantums very appealing, with their upright proportions, excellent use of space and tippy-but-grippy handling in the best European tradition (this was in the days before twenty-inch wheels and rock hard chassis calibrations).  Sharing a platform with the Audi 80 (albeit with a semi-independent torsion beam out back in place of a solid axle) is also a plus; an owner so inclined could easily swap in a turbocharged five under the hood, and given the serviceable condition of the body, this particular Quantum is a great canvas for a gear head’s imagination (even an Audi 4.2 V8 will fit).

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In 1982, however, there were few turbocharged Audi five-cylinders waiting around in wrecking yards, and even if there were, this was a hopelessly tone-deaf offering to tout as an upmarket family car.  While thankfully devoid of Brougham influence, it is not a progressive design for its period.  If anything, it was painfully dorky to behold.

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Having rescued itself with the excellent Golf Mk1, the VW mothership decided to save money and design its second-generation water-cooled cars in house.  That meant the crisp folds of the Giugiaro designed ’70s people’s cars were out, but instead of embracing the aerodynamic futurism that was so cutting edge in its day (think Ford Sierra), Wolfsburg decided to embrace a rather dour stylistic sensibility.

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The reprise of the Scirocco, Polo, Golf, and Jetta have all been widely panned, but it’s the Passat/Quantum/Santana which is the most awkward and clumsy of the five, even if the disappointment was much less acute given that the original Passat/Dasher was the least pert of the Giugiaro-designed H20-coolers to begin with.

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The flush headlights of the European market version would’ve helped the front end design a bit, but there’s no hiding that very long overhang.  Moving back, there is a fixed front quarter light which serves no purpose beyond adding another vertical line to the car’s shape.  Still, the Quantum is immediately identifiable as a Volkswagen of the era; dorky, but full of character. Age has been kinder to these cars than some of the more fashionable designs of the ’80s (think Isuzu Impulse, again by Giugiaro).

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When new, though, it was a rustic looking device when compared to workaday domestic competitors like the Opel Ascona, to say nothing of the very clean GM A-bodies offered for sale in the US.  The average contemporary consumer would had to have been a Volkswagen or diesel devotee to consider the Quantum in ’80s America.

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Inside, things were resolutely functional; don’t let the chrome plating on the door handles (which are oddly more modern looking than the ribbed air-cooled VW pieces found on the otherwise suave 1984 Audi 5000) fool you.  This dashboard would endear itself to hipsters today; it’s not as crude as a Volvo 240’s piece, but it’s intentions were far more modern when new and as such, it makes a great period piece.  Its obscurity is an added bonus.  Ergonomically speaking, the Quantum was a real success, with the radio and climate controls up high, where the Japanese generally refused to place them, and chair-height seats.  It makes up for the quirky four-button steering wheel and console-mounted window switches.  All in all, it’s a very likable space, in keeping with VW’s upmarket aspirations.

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Those who could get past the severity of the overall package weren’t rewarded with much power, sadly, but they did benefit from Bosch fuel-injection.  With no insane fast idling, simple emissions control and minimal hesitation, the system endowed the Quantum with drivability unmatched by many four-cylinder competitors.  A good number of us forget what a breakthrough the better fuel-injection systems were in their day.  With direct injection and turbocharging spoiling us with unbelievable torque these days–just look at the 1.8 in today’s Jetta–it’s even easier to lose perspective.

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It’s too bad that, in 1.7 liter, four-cylinder form, the CIS injection system still resulted in a marginal 74 horsepower.  That was great in a Rabbit or a Jetta, but even in the dark days of the early ’80s, people expected more speed to compensate for their insane financing rates, especially at nearly $11,000 for a base model in 1982.  By comparison, a significantly cheaper Stanza gave its driver command of 94 horsepower, and the carb’d 626 still provided a torquey 83.  Some compensation was available in the 100 horsepower five-cylinder engine which came along in 1983 (except for the three-door) for cars with the new GL5 trim level and by the end of the model run in 1988, power was up to a rousing 115 horsepower.  For a public which still associated the brand with Beetles, regardless of interior quality and road manners, that sort of straight line performance was impossible to overlook.

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That fuel injected five, in addition to the availability of turbodiesel and all-wheel drive offerings, did little to entice buyers.  Bigger and more expensive than the likes of the Stanza, 626 or Accord, all of which were slicker offerings in the compact market, and less glamorous than the similarly priced but more powerful Cressida or Maxima, the Quantum had few direct competitors.  Loaded midsizers from Detroit, like the A-body and extended K-cars matched it in terms of capacity and price, while low-end Saabs and Volvos most approximated the car’s more fundamental qualities.  Even then, Volkswagen could never meet the Americans when it came to value or the Swedes when it came to snob appeal.  Let’s not forget that water-cooled VW reliability was never much to brag about in those years.

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Quantum possessed ride, handling and interior quality befitting of an Audi, but without the same cachet.  For a certain kind of buyer, that made a lot of sense.  For the majority of customers, it was slow, nerdy and relatively pricey; offerings like this nearly cost Volkswagen its place in the American market.  Increased sales beginning in the mid 1990s kept them from abandoning the US altogether, but it would be a while before the lesson was finally learned: popularity in Europe doesn’t translate to mainstream success in North America.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1974-1981 VW Dasher (Passat B1) VW Finally Enters The FWD Era

Curbside Classic: Audi Fox/80 (B1) – The Foxy Mother Of The Modern VW/Audi Era