(First Posted September 25, 2013) By now, it seems that Volkswagen has tried almost everything to find success in the American market. The original VW (which we covered Here) was a true “Peoples’ Car” (the German translation of which is “Volkswagen”). Since then, it has built sports coupes, sports sedans, buses, campers, SUVs, pickups, vans, and even a super-luxury sedan that stickered out at or near six-figures. For good reasons, or sometimes otherwise, many VWs have been quite memorable cars, but others have been quite forgettable. Today’s car is among the latter.
VW made its mark (many, many Marks, if we may speak monetarily) in the low end of the market. The Beetle was the car that put West Germany on wheels after the Second World War; shortly thereafter, it took over the lower end of the American car market as well. It was a simple vehicle, much more so than many thought could be successful here in the States–particularly considering it came from a country that had been our foe during two massive wars still within memory of many car buyers. However, the Beetle was so well-built and offered such value that it slowly built a following and, against all odds, came to own the entry-level market.
By the early 1970s, the Beetle’s days were numbered, at least in its home country and in the U.S. More modern and capable vehicles from several other countries were now slowly displacing the venerable bug. By the time the Rabbit debuted in the U.S., as a 1975 model, shoppers for an inexpensive new car had many good choices, few (if any) of which were available at Volkswagen dealers. The Rabbit, although small by American standards, was far from inexpensive; still, it proved to be a very popular car. VW’s pricing problem lay with the vehicle itself: the Rabbit (Golf elsewhere) was not really designed to be a cheap car and the exchange rate between the German DM and the U.S. Dollar only compounded the problem.
By the time the 1985 Golf Mk II came along, VW dealers were trying to carve out a niche by offering cars that delivered the experience of a German road car at a lower price than a BMW, Audi or Mercedes. (Actually, has VW ever figured out a better-working niche since then?) The new Golf and Jetta were inexpensive by German-import standards, but for someone not part of the leather-driving-gloves set, they still cost a lot of money. For example, my 1985 GTI (with air, sunroof and stereo) stickered at over $12,000. That sounds like quite a bargain now, but at the time that kind of money bought a decently equipped Crown Victoria. What’s more, there were plenty of American and Japanese companies selling cars in the $7,000 – $9,000 range. To top (or bottom) it off, the 1986 Hyundai Excel was advertised at a $4,995 base price, and the new Yugo was priced $1,000 below the Hyundai.
The Peoples Car company had a solution. In 1980, VW had introduced a car built in Brazil and unique to the Latin American market–the VW Gol. Yes, the Gol. The Gol, covered a bit here, was the first version of the VW BX front-drive platform, which borrowed heavily from the earlier Audi 80/Fox (CC Here). Two of the most significant differences were the Gol’s shorter wheelbase and its use of a longitudinally front-mounted Beetle engine. Within a few years, the car evolved to make use of a variety of water-cooled gasoline and diesel power plants. VW decided that one of the higher-content versions of the Gol, a car introduced in 1983 as the Voyage, would make a perfect modern-day Peoples Car for the North American market.
The 1987 Volkswagen Fox showed up in the U.S. in the late summer of 1986. How did it fit into VW’s grand scheme for the American market? Maybe some of you know, but I have never figured it out.
First, the car was built in Brazil, presumably to counter the exchange rate problem that had made late-’70s European cars so expensive in the U.S. Was there anything wrong with importing a VW from Brazil? Not really, except that at the time, “German-ness” was really the only thing bringing folks into VW dealerships. The VWs built in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania seemed to suffer a bit of reverse-snobbery among Americans. Whether true or not, the German-built cars were reputed to be better than their American-built counterparts. A Brazilian-built VW (particularly one never offered in Germany) seemed to have one strike against it even before it was unloaded from the carrier.
The Fox was offered in two- and four-door sedan versions, as well as a nifty two-door wagon. Now, I loves me a good two-door station wagon, and I suspect that there are probably another three-thousand people in the country who agree with me. Two-door wagons had never sold well in the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s, and to introduce one in the era of mandatory child seats was, well, an interesting idea. That aside, any line of inexpensive cars in the 1980s without a hatchback and a four-door wagon had just swung the bat for strike two.
The Fox did have one positive: Its initial base price of about $6,100–about a grand over a Hyundai–still undercut the cheapest Toyota Corolla by quite a bit. However, a comparison shopper could see right away where the differences lay. Was it a problem that the car came with only a four-speed transmission? Sure, a five speed was later added, but never was an automatic offered on the Fox during its entire American run– not exactly a recipe for success in the U. S.
Also, Toyota had built up a reputation as the kind of car you could drive and forget about until it was time to trade in. Since the advent of water-cooled engines, VW has never been able to earn that kind of reputation for itself. It may not have helped that the Fox was powered by pretty much the same 1.8-liter four as the Golf and Jetta–not that it was a bad engine, but when other brands were offering 1.5- and 1.6-liter engines in their economy cars (and with five-speed transmissions, no less), the Fox was probably not all that economical either.
In the car’s favor, it did offer a fairly good fun-to-drive quotient within its price class. Nevertheless, VW never did seem to catch on to the idea of marketing the car’s Audi roots at a budget price. And where the larger cars came in GTI or GLI trim levels, the Fox never got that kind of love from headquarters. From 1987-90 (the years the wagon was offered) the Fox sold about 104,000 cars, or about 26,000 units per year on average. After the line was pared down to two lightly refreshed coupe and sedan models for 1991-93, VWOA sold another 60,000 cars.
I was a VW owner when the Fox hit the showroom, and I was mildly intrigued by the little car–not intrigued enough to trade my GTI for one, but I hoped that the Fox would find a market. Alas, the Fox embodied every one of the mistakes that VWOA has continued to make in the American market. For a company trying to sell Fahrvergnugen, offering North American buyers a poorly equipped vehicle not good enough for Europe was a fail.In the late ’80s, German austerity minus the German driving experience did not sell here. It still doesn’t. Add in the fact that it didn’t particularly distinguish itself from a service and repair standpoint, and we have a car that was never seen all that frequently when new and has virtually disappeared from the rustier parts of North America.
For all its failings, there is still something about this little red two-door wagon that calls my name today, just as it did in late 1986. Had VW found a way to make this more of a little driver’s car, with all of the Fahrvergnugen at a lower price, it might have had a hit on its hands. But VW was trying for cheap, basic transportation. A Peoples’ Car. But a true Peoples’ Car must either be durable and cheap to repair like a Cavalier, or have deep-down quality like a Corolla or Civic. The Beetle, of course, was both of those things. The Fox, however, was neither, and it faded quickly. Usually, a fox is considered a predator. This one turned out to be the prey.