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km : Hindsight

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21 February 2011

This article originally appeared on MotiveMag.com on October 30, 2008





Looking back, I knew I’d one day finally tire of playing Don Quixote to my friend Luke’s Sancho Panza. Luke very sensibly preferred to spend his time maintaining and modifying a showroom-fresh BMW 330Ci; I was always tilting at windmills by trying to keep a fifteen-year-old Volkswagen Corrado from devolving into an immobile mass of clicking relays. Predictably, Luke would get a good ride in every nice weekend while I would struggle with finding a starter or a distributor cap or a valve-cover gasket that was purged from most dealers’ parts systems by 1995. Still, all the problems and aggravations notwithstanding, I chose to continue jousting because there was — and still is — nothing rational about the Corrado. It’s the product of a strain of enthusiastic lunacy that began with the car’s conception in Germany and still haunts those who own them today.



Introduced in Europe as a 1989 model, the Corrado was never intended as a volume seller. Rather, it was supposed to be a showcase of Volkswagen’s technological prowess; a rolling paean to the superiority of German engineering. “Our first real sports car,” as head engineer Wolfgang Lincke told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1988.



Responsibility for styling the car landed in the lap of Volkswagen design chief Herbert Schäfer, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the job. The first-generation Golf GTI, with its subtle trim and spoilers that differentiate it from a kickabout commuter? Shäfer’s handiwork. The entire second-generation Golf, generally considered the most iconic of the family? Schäfer again. So when it came to the Corrado, Schäfer started with what he knew. The floorpan of the Corrado was borrowed from the second-generation Golf, as were its front suspension and engine cradle. The twist-beam rear axle was cribbed from the upcoming third-generation Passat. On top of that foundation, Schäfer’s team designed an entirely unique body for the Corrado. The front sheetmetal was pinched down in a scowl, forming the start of a line that bulged over the front wheels and flowed down the rear haunches in a curve that the German press likened to a question mark. Side mirrors were mounted on stanchions instead of to the sail panels. The headlamps, grille, and turn signals were flush-mounted to let the Corrado cut through the air cleanly, and to an extent it worked: The Corrado’s drag coefficient of 0.32 was better than the Porsche 944′s 0.35, or even the Ferrari F40′s 0.34.



A feature that was standard across all Corrados was a motorized rear wing that, in theory, would raise automatically to keep the rear of the car planted, popping up at 75 mph on European cars and 45 mph in the U.S. It’s exactly the kind of party trick one would expect from a showcase of Volkswagen’s technological prowess, and like most paeans to the superiority of German engineering it worked perfectly for about three years. The parts to fix one are available from dealerships yet — and cost as much as an aircraft carrier, just as one would expect.



The triumphs of German engineering weren’t limited to spoilers, however. While the base-model Corrados in Europe were available with the same sixteen-valve engine that could be had in the GTI, the Corrados that arrived in America for its 1990 launch had something infinitely more advanced and agonizingly fragile under their hoods — the G60 engine.



Starting life as the same eight-valve 1.8-liter four that powered countless Golfs and Jettas, the G60 engine was fitted with stronger connecting rods, pistons with thicker wrist pins, and oil squirters to keep the underside of the piston crowns cool. The intake and exhaust ports were located on the same side of the head, creating a turbulent flow that limited the engine’s ability to rev high or quickly. The engine’s 158 horsepower came courtesy of 10 psi of boost fed into its manifold by the G-lader, a belt-driven spiral supercharger that had been in development at VW for the better part of a decade.



Unlike a traditional supercharger, which uses two rotors or screws to compress air, the G-lader used intermeshed metal spirals. Half of the spiral was cast into the aluminum alloy blower housing and its mate was cast into a magnesium alloy plate that moved in an eccentric motion inside the first. The motion of the magnesium plate forced air toward the center of the spiral, reducing its area and increasing its pressure. “The main aim of the G-lader is to give good all-round performance,” G-lader program director Ulrich Seiffert told Car during the Corrado’s launch. “There is 2.5-liter performance from an engine of only 1.8 liters.” Seiffert gushed to the magazine about the advantages of the G-lader versus traditional forced induction at the time: The unit weighed only 15 pounds, was far lighter than a cast-iron turbocharger, and was more efficient than traditional superchargers. Unfortunately, since the G-lader was bleeding-edge, the one area that Seiffert couldn’t speak to was reliability. And with good reason: The lip seals that G-laders used around their spirals were designed to wear as the unit aged. The supercharger itself was a maintenance item. The fix, as most Corrado owners found, was to ditch the new-tech entirely and swap in a twin-screw Lysholm supercharger, the type of unit that the G-lader was design to supplant.



The Corrado’s forte was handling. Twenty years before we were impressed at how the solid-axle Cobalt SS outshined the competition on a racetrack, the Corrado had the witches’ brew formula of torsion-beam handling dialed down to an art. Barrel into a corner in a properly sorted Corrado, and the car will err on the side of understeer. It will, with the right rubber, still stick to the road tenaciously — even with the inside rear tire lifted like a happy dog at a hydrant. Push harder and the car will run wide of its mark, with its nose gently stepping out as the rear follows, but simply lifting off the throttle will kill the understeer and bring the front end tight to its line. “The handling is terrific,” wrote Car in September of ’88, “better than the GTI 16V’s.” The kind of easy, predictable behavior that rewards the capable and keeps the inept from going home in a zipper bag.





Yet the G60 engine, as capable as it was, gave the Corrado an identity crisis. The car had the kind of looks that brought grown men to their knees, and it could hold its own when the road went curvy, but its engine was low-revving and sounded like a upright vacuum run over pea gravel. “It lacks the zing and zeal of a good V-6,” wrote Car. So for 1992, Volkswagen dropped the force-fed G60 entirely in favor of its new six-cylinder transverse engine, the VR6. With only fifteen degrees between its cylinder banks and a single cylinder head, the snarky VR6 was a bit of an identity crisis itself: Was it a V-6 or an inline six? The debate rages to this day among Volkswagen enthusiasts, and the short answer is that nobody knows. VW couldn’t even decide, as the “VR” in VR6 stands for the German Vee Reihenmotor — literally “inline vee engine. ” What nobody doubts, though, is that its inclusion in the Corrado took a car that could have been an otherwise unimpressive once-and-done and made it an icon.





With 178 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, the 2.8-liter VR6 transformed the car’s personality. The engine brought with it a powerband wider than a thoroughfare and flatter than Topeka. Downshifting wasn’t required to get the most out of the Corrado anymore, but dropping a gear or two did reward the driver in other ways: Despite the staggering of its cylinders, the VR6 had all of its intake ports on one side of the head and all of its exhaust ports on the other. The imbalance that resulted from different runner lengths inside the head itself created two unique intake and exhaust tones that layered over each other, giving the VR6 an exotic–esque burble that stood in stark contrast to the dingy, hollow blats that exited from the tailpipes of domestic V-6s or the trebled wail of Japanese imports.



The VR6 had transformed the Corrado into a rocket. Zero-to-60 times dropped from 7.3 seconds for the G60 to 6.4 seconds for the VR6. The automotive press, which had drubbed the Corrado for its lackluster motivation, agreed that the addition of the VR6 had reinvigorated the car, with Automobile putting the 1993 and 1994 Corrados on its annual list of All-Stars. Volkswagen hyped the re-powered Corrado as a cut-rate Porsche 968, running advertising with callouts such as “Drive a Porsche. Crazy.” Volkswagen had succeeded in producing its first sports car, just in time for the model to disappear from the U.S. at the end of 1994. Corrados would soldier on in Canada for 1995, but then the car was gone, with nothing else in the pipeline to replace it.



The story of the Corrado is sad proof that even when all the ingredients are right, success isn’t guaranteed. Corrados had launched in America with a base price of $17,900 in 1990, with its sole drivetrain the G60 engine and a manual transmission, and buyers didn’t bite. By 1991, VW added an automatic in hopes of putting the spurs to sales, but volumes were still off from the 10,000 annual units that it was hoped Corrado would sell here. 1992 saw the G60 give way to the VR6 and the base price jump up to $22,870 — just as the economy was struggling out of a recession. Then 1993 rolled around, and Volkswagen sales hit their lowest point since the Beetle was discontinued — less than a meager 50,000 units for the year. The automaker considered pulling out of the United States entirely, the writing being etched clearly on the wall for the slow-selling Corrado. By 1994, typically-equipped Corrados were asking a hefty $28,000, and sales were so slow that dealers weren’t required to keep Corrados on their lots, or even take orders for them. It was never intended to be a volume seller, but the frosty reception that the Corrado received wasn’t expected, either. By the time global Corrado production ceased at the Karmann Coachworks factory in Osnabrück, just 97,521 examples had come off the line in the seven years it was running.



And yet, like a film that bombed in theaters but took on new life as a video-release cult classic, the Corrado inspires those who discover it to the point of near lunacy. Corrados are Teflon cars for their owners, sloughing off the stigma of epic unreliability that characterizes Corrado ownership — the sticking spoilers or non-functional sunroofs or mousy motorized seatbelts or failed water pumps or broken plastic cooling tubes or freewheeling superchargers. None of that tarnishes their enthusiasm, because when the cars are right, they’re brilliant. And it’s that sort of enthusiastic lunacy that makes others wonder: Perhaps we Corrado people are crazy to them, but they can’t put it fully out of their minds that perhaps there’s something to it.


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