The cars we loved.
In case you haven’t noticed, Volkswagen is hard at work at world domination. Long a power in Europe, it has since expanded its reach to include a stronghold in South America. VW’s that don’t resemble any European or American counterparts are sold in markets like Brazil. But to truly conquer the world, VW needs more than a strong presence in the Southern Hemisphere. It needs to regain a foothold in America amongst all the matured quick learning upstarts like Hyundai and Kia.
Volkswagen started the process with Tennessee built Passats and Jettas that have moved decidedly upscale. The Passat even won a Motor Trend magazine “Car of the Year” award for 2011. The Jetta too has been highly regarded, but has left entry level behind in its quest to become more A4-like.
Before the Jetta began to fulfill WV’s upwardly aspirations , the company sold a smaller, stripped down car that was in many ways a spiritual successor to the Beetle. The Fox name had been used as an Audi until the late 70’s. When that car was discontinued, the name would resurface in 1987 as a front wheel drive Volkswagen. Unlike the old Audi Fox, the new car was a stripped down basic no frills mode of transportation that came from Brazil. With no cheap small car in its US line up (the Rabbit was moving upmarket), the Fox was VW’s first real subcompact for America, since the Beatle went south in 1981. It was available in four door sedan, two door coupe and two door “shooting brake” type wagon configurations.
So basic was the Fox that it came with one engine, an inline 1.8L SOHC four-cylinder. Two transmission choices, all manual, gave the Fox a sudo sporty cred as being a driver’s econobox. Although the Fox had just 80 hp, it made up for the lack of power with good road manners. At less than 2500 lbs, the Fox was very lightweight, giving it an almost respectable 0 to 60 time 10.7 seconds with the 5 speed. The independent suspension was rare in the econo class and provided good road response within the limitations of the cars 13′ wheels. The only let down might have been the engine itself. The switch from an electro-mechanical to fully electronic Bosch fuel injection system helped matters a bit.
There was even a rare Wolfsburg Edition, but the Fox never pretended to be a sports car. Unlike Jettas made in Mexico who’s Wolfsburg cars came from Germany, the Fox Wolfsburg car was an appearance package built in Brazil (like all Fox cars). It seemed that VW of Brazil was given free rein to sell whatever version of it’s Gol to Americans, as long as it was basic. The Gol in Brasil was available as a stylish 2 door hatch in GTS trim (with 120 hp). In the States, the best we could hope for was GL Sport with its front disc brakes and extra gear vs. the 4 speed in all other versions.
A mild redesign in 1990 modernized the headlights, but retained the original cars boxy proportions. Despite the Fox’s positioning as an economy car, it was far from the most efficient subcompact out there. As VW’s entry level car, it was considerably more expensive than its American and Japanese rivals at nearly $8,000. It lacked the power of similar cars or fuel economy of a true gas sipper car (30-33 mpg at best), but provided the driver with a simple but well-designed German inspired simple interior.
Creature comforts were rare. Features like ABS, power windows and door locks were never offered, making the Fox the odd choice out in a market that was increasingly moving to Civics, Corollas and the Escort. Sales were always low, even though the Fox was loved by the automotive press for it’s good handling. It remained a hard bargain when a Hyundai Excel cost almost half as much.
Today the Fox is nothing more than a bleep on the screen of WV history in America. In the Southern hemisphere, it’s still being built and has morphed into a smaller version of the Golf or more exactly the Polo. Older versions of the car are still popular and get plenty of love from tuner types. The Fox’s potential is seldom explored here, but there is a healthy number of enthusiasts on sites like car Domain who have proudly pimped their rides. Generally, you’d be lucky to find a running Fox on the road or in a buy-here-pay-here lot.
VW has since learned that world domination requires more refinement in its entry-level cars as well as more value for the money. The value proposition was where the Fox may have had it wrong. As a presumed German car, it was seen as being somewhat higher end. As an economy car, it was stripped down, but was not the segment’s mpg star. It was fun to drive, as a German car was expected to be, but came at a premium. Most buyers probably never knew the Fox was built in South America and that all those German attributes were thousands of miles removed from Wolfsburg. VW still has no true subcompact for sale in the American market. Now that subcompact or hatchback is no longer a dirty word in America, a void has opened that the Polo could easily fill.