Vintage R&T Road Test: 1969 VW 1600 Squareback Automatic – As Fast As The Manual

Automatics teamed up with relatively modest-output four cylinder engines have a bad rep for being much more sluggish than the manual version. But that wasn’t always the case, and this is the second one that defies that, shortly after R&T’s review of the Austin America’s with its “exceptional” four speed automatic. Strictly speaking, this Squareback with VW’s brand new three-speed automatic was 0.6 seconds slower in the quarter mile than the manual, but given that it took 22.3 seconds, that’s essentially an imperceptible difference.

A bit of a surprise, but perhaps the bigger one is that R&T was not happy for the most part with the new semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension. Bring back the swing axles?

The electronic fuel injection system (new in 1968) improved VW’s already very good throttle response even further, never mind the quick starting, no stumbling and all-round superb driveability.

The automatic was praised for its quick response in downshifting, which probably alone counted for a considerable amount of the positive impression it made. On the other hand, the absolute level of performance, which included a 20.3 second 0-60 time, was just slow, for a car that was not all that cheap.

As to the new IRS, R&T brings up an interesting point about why it was less than ideal in some circumstances: the VW trailing arm suspension, which did not allow camber changes (unlike the typical SLA front suspensions) was designed to partner and harmonize with the original swing axle at the rear. Teaming it with the new IRS created excessive initial understeer. R&T found that their tester did not have the critical F/R tire pressure differential, and when the corrected that, there was “a marked improvement even though the low-speed maneuvering…was still twitchy and unsettling”. This is all a bit of a surprise, but then I don’t really have much experience in these.