Concluding our micro-theme on Volkswagen, while continuing another one.
There is (or ought to be) a rule which states that the longer a car remains in production, the less effective facelifting exercises become – in purely aesthetic terms at least. You will have noticed that Volkswagen (of Wolfsburg) has been in receipt of no small quantum of derisive commentary upon DTW’s pages of late, most of which was largely justified. By contrast, VW do Brasil has been portrayed as the more astute, more ingenious, and more commercially adept of the pair.
This was certainly the case when the mothership remained in hand-wringing mode as to the product-related course it should take in a post-Käfer landscape. But it does appear that as their German counterparts finally got a grip on both itself and its product, the Brazilians appeared to lose sight of theirs – at least from a creative standpoint. Certainly, by the 1980s, Volkswagen do Brasil’s output seemed to lack the distinctiveness and visual appeal which characterised its earlier iterations.
Given that the Brazilian outpost’s Marcio Piancastelli seemed to have been uncannily adept at taking contemporary VW styling cues and imbuing them with more stylistic verve than his Mittelandkanal counterparts, perhaps this was more an indictment of his source material than any falloff in stylistic ability on Piancastelli’s part – or simply that maestro Schäfer’s shapes, such as they were, didn’t translate all that well.
Volkswagen’s 1980 Passat B2-Series was, even by VW standards a highly successful model programme. Based, like its B1 predecessor on the concurrent Audi 80 platform, suspensions and powertrain, this commonality already allowed for significant economies of scale. Introduced across Europe as a five-door hatchback or estate (a three-door was also offered in some markets), the Euro-range was expanded in (possibly) 1984 by a three-volume saloon (the first in Passat terms), called Santana.
This bodystyle of Passat had previously been resisted by Volkswagen, presumably to avoid stepping on Audi’s toes; the incumbent hatchback’s slightly hunchbacked appearance seem by some as a deliberate ruse to place some visual distance between the mechanically similar VW in potential customer’s eyes. But some more eagle-eyed viewers have also discerned a faint resemblance between the Passat and its distant 411/412 predecessor. Hardly coincidental, given the fact that Herbert Schäfer, Volkswagen’s then design director, was believed to have worked on the Type 4 design during his earlier career.
The Santana came therefore as something of a surprise – as was its name – most English speaking folk ascribing it to the synonymous and popular Latin American blues/rock band. The novelty went little further however, since the Santana was an entirely predictable (if well-executed) three-volume version of the existing somewhat staid Passat theme. Resembling (especially in high-spec versions) a slightly more compact version of the previous generation Audi 100, it was by mid-80s standards, somewhat regressive, but there remained a market for that.
More so elsewhere; the Santana it seems being created ostensibly for ’emerging markets’, especially China, where it spearheaded VW’s push into that previously impenetrable state, and quite naturally, America – both North and South of the border. VW do Brasil offered the Santana (uniquely?) with both 2-door and four-door bodies, the former (in the lead photo above at least) having something of a ‘Volvo 780 ES on a budget’ appearance.
In 1989, Wolfsburg introduced the B3, a radically different Passat, the first to be based on a transverse powertrain, owing nothing to its Ingolstadt equivalent. But in Latin America and China, the B2 Santana remained in production, VW do Brasil grafting on a new, more raked nose and taller tail in 1991. This version was also sold in Argentina, not only as the Volkswagen Carat, but also as the Ford Versailles, under an agreement between VW do Brasil and the Ford Motor Company. Production also took place in Mexico. Incidentally, North American versions of the B2 were marketed as Quantum. (Of what however, remains unclear – derision perhaps?).
In 1998, a further, more comprehensive facelift was enacted for the Brazilian market, and while competently executed in itself, seemed rooted in the worst of Herbie Schäfer’s Heidedesign excesses, which so characterised VW’s stylistic output throughout the early to mid-90s. These changes were largely (if not precisely) duplicated in China, where the B2 Santana continued in production until 2012.
It has not been possible (in the time available) to discern a definitive figure for total B2 production, but it, along with the return on investment, must have been considerable. But to return to the subject of facelifts, while not always visually satisfying, in the case of the Santana, a car which predominantly sold on qualities which probably sat well outside of showroom appeal and outright style, they maintained the car in the market well past the point it ought to have been retired.
Isn’t that really the point of the exercise?