Curbside Classic: 1993 Volkswagen Corrado VR6 – The Enigmatic Also-Ran

(first posted 6/15/2018)     When the Volkswagen Scirocco arrived on our shores in 1975, it was a revelation: a lightweight, sharp-handling stunner that mated the practicality and efficiency of a transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive layout to a sleek, rakish design and capable suspension setup. It was unlike anything marketed by American manufacturers at the time, and though it was never a massive sales success in the United States, it sold respectably through the mid-1980s. But as that decade waned, it became clear that the Scirocco was losing ground, with sales suffocated at both ends. On one end, the rising prominence of Japanese sport coupes such as the Honda Prelude was impinging upon the Scirocco’s turf, and on the other, the similarly-performing GTI out of Volkswagen’s own stable was more than 25% cheaper, and more practical to boot. So what was Volkswagen to do?

Their answer: go back to the drawing board, and move the Scirocco upmarket. The first step was to give the styling a makeover: while the original Giugiaro-penned Scirocco was a looker, the in-house facelift of the Scirocco Mk2 was less well-received, and by 1990, the shape was looking quite dated. Early prototypes of the Corrado showed radical departures from the Scirocco’s low-slung hatchback silhouette, with a more upright (and a bit ungainly) appearance, with a somewhat-droopy rear end and low-mounted taillights. (Interestingly, one of the most striking lines on the production Corrado is the upswept beltline behind its front doors: a complete 180 from the prototype’s design, and somewhat reminiscent of the Alfa Romeo 75/Milano’s controversial styling.)

This later prototype was much closer to the Corrado’s production form: while the greenhouse was still more upright than the Scirocco’s, head VW designer Herbert Schäfer lent the car a chunky, squared-off look that deviated significantly from the more rounded, circular forms the Japanese competition was adopting at the time. The overall result was fairly attractive, and certainly distinctive: but like the prototype, the rear-end treatment was probably the styling’s weakest link – I know I just complained that the prototype’s taillights were too low, but I can’t help but think that the production model’s lights were mounted just a bit too high (I think the freestanding, out-of-place VW badge placed underneath the lighting assembly throws the visual off for me). But I digress.

Like the Scirocco, the Corrado’s platform was derived directly from the contemporary Golf model (in this case, the Mk2 Golf), and shared most of its drivetrain components. This, of course, reduced the engineering capital needed to design the car, and theoretically allowed costs to stay down (more on that later). However, the Corrado had its own party piece – the engine. When the Corrado was introduced in the fall of 1988, it debuted with a supercharged 8-valve inline-four, dubbed the “G60.” The nickname arose from the G-Lader supercharger affixed to the engine (itself so-called due to its G-shaped configuration), and the 60mm spiral depth of the supercharger’s displacer plate. Producing 158 horsepower and mated to a five-speed manual, it propelled the Corrado to 60 miles an hour in eight seconds flat – very quick for 1988. Strangely, the base engine in the Corrado (which was never marketed stateside) was a more technically advanced 16-valve engine, but aside from a few prototypes, it was never paired with the supercharger.

You may have noticed I still haven’t mentioned the VR6. That’s because it wasn’t introduced to the Corrado line until 1992 – for its first three years, four cylinders was all you could get. And that was a problem; not because the engine was bad, but because despite a $4,000 price hike over the Scirocco, the Corrado still wasn’t any faster than the much-cheaper 16-valve GTI, with which it shared a platform and a laughably awful cable-controlled gearbox (described by a contemporary review as “inharmonious as a warped record and as vague as a horoscope cast by a fair-ground fortune-teller”). Despite attempting to move the Corrado upmarket, in the eyes of many buyers, the Corrado was just as redundant as the Scirocco was by the end of its lifespan. Even more confusingly, the Corrado was actually marketed alongside the Scirocco in Europe until 1993. That meant that during this time, you could buy a 16-valve GTI or a 16-valve Scirocco or a much-more-expensive-but-not-any-faster Corrado. From a marketing standpoint, this was pure madness.

But all this is not to say the Corrado was without its positives. Handling, for the most part, was a particularly strong suit, with commendable steering feel and top marks for agility and directional stability. It’s this aspect of the car that has cemented the Corrado’s legacy in motoring lore, as many regard it among the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars ever made. However, more than one reviewer complained about oversteer that was too easy to induce during high-speed cornering, with more than a little twitchiness at the limit. It was clear, then, that Volkswagen had gotten part of the formula right – but it was also increasingly clear that the G60 engine was not going to cut it, at least not in the US market. Sales, which had registered at a paltry 5,500 in 1990, sunk to new depths during the following year. Something had to change.

Enter the VR6. I’ll spare you the in-depth technical details, but I would be amiss to not at least touch upon its innovative configuration. The VR6 was developed by Volkswagen as a space-efficient six-cylinder engine – one that could fit neatly into engine bays designed for smaller-capacity motors. Think of it as a cross between an inline-6 and a V6 in terms of layout: like a V6, there are two cylinder banks across from one another, but in a VR6, the angle of the “V” in the engine is much narrower (10-15 degrees), such that the cylinders are staggered more closely than in a V6 engine (which usually has a 45-90 degree angle between cylinder banks). Since the angle is so tight, this allows the VR6 engine to utilize only one cylinder head, compared to the two necessary in a traditional V6 engine. In a nutshell, this strikes a compromise between the length of an inline engine and the width of a V-configuration engine, allowing the VR6 to be both shorter than an inline-6 and narrower than a V6: the perfect setup in an engine bay designed for a smaller-displacement motor.

The VR6 was released to the European public in the 1991 Corrado model, and came to our shores the following year. The critics loved it: its “razor-sharp throttle response” and the exhaust’s “growling snort” yielded a driving experience that many opined should have accompanied the Corrado to begin with – impressions no doubt boosted by the VR6’s new suspension components sourced from the latest Golf Mk3. It was faster, too: most contemporary accounts clocked it at a sub-seven second 0-60 run, finally outpacing its GTI stablemate. Here, then, was the car Volkswagen had intended to market the whole time: a legitimate sports coupe, with a competent chassis, sharp handling, and a terrific engine to boot. There was only one problem – nobody bought it.

Despite the VR6’s shot in the arm, the Corrado’s sales continued to flounder. Sales slipped to 3,500 for the 1992 model year, and after VW killed the G60 model for 1993, they cratered to just over 2,000. By 1995, it was gone for good, after just around 18,500 sold in five model years. I can’t find any year-by-year breakdown for European sales, but while it was ultimately more successful overseas, global sales of 97,500 over seven model years (that’s including US sales) trailed the Scirocco (800,000 sales over 20 years) by a considerable margin. Hardly a success, then. But why?

The first reason, as was commonplace for European imports around this time, was the price. The 1993 Corrado SLC (VW marketed the VR6 model as the SLC in the United States, with the SLC ostensibly standing for “Sport Luxury Coupe”) stickered for a steep $22,540 – that’s $40,000 today – which was around two grand more than a Prelude Si and thousands more than something like a Probe GT. While the VR6’s added performance and superior handling arguably justified the price, there’s no doubt that it was a steep price to pay – especially for a Volkswagen.

And by “especially for a Volkswagen,” I mean two things. The first is that Volkswagen wasn’t (and still isn’t) an upmarket brand: while they tried to position themselves as a sub-premium brand in the 1990s, $40,000 (adjusted) was pushing that self-imposed moniker to the limit. It’s the same problem – on a smaller scale, admittedly – that they ran into with cars like the Touareg and Phaeton (a story for another day). A base-model 3-series was the same price as a typically-equipped VR6 Corrado, and while there’s no doubt the Corrado would run rings around a 318i, the reality is that most people would have rather ponied up the cash for the brand name. Enthusiasts are a vocal faction but a tiny fraction of the buying public, and there simply weren’t enough well-heeled enthusiasts around to keep the Corrado afloat.

The second reason was the nail in the coffin for the Corrado: its build quality, or rather, the lack thereof. People love to bash Volkswagen for their cars’ unreliability: some of it is deserved, and some unjustified – as always, your mileage may vary. But there’s no denying the Corrado had a particular penchant for masochistic tendencies. The list of common pitfalls could itself comprise an entire post: chain tensioners with sporadic timing advances, brittle radiator plastic, flaky fuel pumps, copious coolant leaks, and enough electrical gremlins to make Lucas blush. Seriously: I spent a decent amount of time on Corrado forums while researching this article, and it very much seems that Murphy’s law is in full effect for the Corrado: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The sunroof, the steering rack, the ABS, the window regulators, the spoiler motor, and basically every electronically-activated switch inside the car – you name it. One new forum member asked what the VR6’s common problems were, and the first reply was “If you want help you will need to be specific as to which type of self-inflicted pain you are choosing.” Want to hear a good Corrado joke? Hold on, I’m working on it.

In the end, the Corrado never really stood a chance. It was a good car – a great car, even – let down by competition within its own manufacturer’s lineup and a serious case of sticker shock, and felled by its inability to stay in one piece for any reasonable amount of time. Still, in the years following its demise, it has acquired quite the following: for some people, the siren song of a sweet-handling sports coupe is enough to outweigh even the most pernicious build quality concerns. Indeed, the average price of a well-kept VR6 model has risen sharply over the last year, and a prime example will now set you back over $10,000. Perhaps as the car ages, its chronic ailments are more in keeping with the expectations for a 25-year-old car than for a new one. Or maybe it’s yet another example of a new generation reaching the age at which they can finally buy the dream cars of their youth. One thing’s for certain, though – one way or another: if you hop on the Corrado train, be prepared to be taken for a ride.

1993 Corrado SLC photographed in Glendale, CA – December 2017

1990 Corrado G60 photographed in Playa del Rey, CA – March 2012