A rare market failure for the Volkswagen Group, the 1988 Corrado was a victim of poor product planning rather than its own shortcomings.
Volkswagen’s product planning is the very epitome of Teutonic efficiency and timing. It is difficult to think of an instance when the launch of a new model was greeted with anything like surprise, never mind delight, such is their predictability.
Within the wider Volkswagen group, the other marques have occasionally surprised us with their debutantes: Škoda’s 2006 Roomster and 2009 Yeti arrived during an era of unprecedented and welcome creative freedom for the Czech marque. SEAT’s wholesale switch to monobox vehicles, heralded by the 2004 Altea and Toledo, was brave left-field thinking, if ultimately a dead-end in both creative and sales terms.
Even Audi has enjoyed the occasional off-piste excursion, the prime examples being the 1980 skunkworks Ur-Quattro and the 1999 Audi A2, an under-appreciated design that was probably a decade ahead of its time.
Had things gone to plan, the 1998 Volkswagen Corrado should have been the Scirocco Mk3. It certainly looked the part. The original 1974 Scirocco was actually the ‘shake-down’ model for the chassis and mechanical package that would underpin the Golf Mk1, a car that was widely perceived as critical to Volkswagen’s survival. The engineers wanted to ensure that the all-new technology would be 100% reliable before the Golf’s launch, so using a closely related but relatively small volume coupé to test it in the hands of customers was an astute move.
In the event, the Scirocco Mk1 proved to be a success in its own right, helped in no small part by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s delightful styling, which gave the close-coupled 2+2 coupé its own distinctive identity. Who cared that it was just a Golf underneath when it looked this good? A total of 504,153 were sold during its seven-year production life.
Unfortunately, Volkswagen did not fully appreciate the importance of styling when it came to the 1981 Scirocco Mk2. The design was undertaken in-house and, while the new model was roomier and more aerodynamic, it lost that close-coupled look that had worked so successfully for its predecessor. Instead, the long rear side window and slim C-pillar, while not unpleasant, was just a bit dull by comparison. The design detailing was rather too closely related to the Passat B2 and Polo Mk2, both launched in the same year. In fact, the new Scirocco looked to some like little more than a stretched version of the Polo coupé(1).
Volkswagen attempted to return some sporting intent to the model by adding spoilers, wheel arch and sill extensions, but these all sat rather uncomfortably on the plain shape underneath. The Scirocco Mk2 achieved just 291,497 sales over a long eleven-year production life. In fairness, the market was moving firmly away from coupés to hot hatchbacks during that time, but it was still a disappointing total. The Scirocco Mk2 was objectively a better car than its predecessor, but it lacked much in the way of emotional appeal.
This is where the story of the Corrado begins. Recognising that the Scirocco Mk2 was underperforming, in 1983 Volkswagen set about designing a replacement. The new model would use the floorpan and mechanical package from the Golf and Jetta Mk2. The styling was undertaken in-house by chief designer, Herbert Schäfer. It was clearly intended to recapture the appeal of the Giugiaro original, with its long doors, short upswept rear side window and broad C-pillar.
Volkswagen was aware of the “Golf in a party frock” jibes that had been frequently aimed at the Scirocco, so was determined to differentiate the Mk3 more strongly in terms of technology. To this end, flush glass and an active rear spoiler(2) were specified. Manufacturing would be outsourced to Karmann. Two engines would be offered at launch, both 1,781cc versions of the existing EA827 unit. The first was a 16-valve normally aspirated engine producing 134 bhp (100kW) and dubbed 16V(3). The second was a supercharged 8-valve version, producing 158 bhp (118 kW) and was dubbed G60(4).
As development progressed Volkswagen realised that, in order to earn a decent return on the new model, it would need to be priced at a significant premium over the Scirocco. It was therefore decided to launch it, not as a Scirocco replacement, but as a ‘halo’ range-topping model. That decision made, Volkswagen now needed to find a new name for the car. ‘Taifun’ (typhoon in German) was initially considered, continuing the wind-themed names of previous models, but General Motors already held copyrights on that name in certain territories. Instead, the name Corrado was invented, a synthesised word that meant nothing but was phonetically consistent with Polo and Scirocco.
Volkswagen hoped that the Corrado would fill a perceived niche between the Scirocco and Porsche 924, with the Audi Coupé sitting alongside as a larger and more GT-orientated offering. The car was launched in September 1988, but Volkswagen had already stolen its thunder and undermined its exclusivity by offering the G60 engine in both the Passat B3 and Golf Mk2 from August. The Corrado was well received, but many remarked on its hefty price (almost £20k for the G60 model in the UK) which made it the most expensive Volkswagen ever. Moreover, it offered no performance advantage over the cheaper Golf G60.
Car Magazine tested the Corrado G60 at launch. Its performance seemed impressive on paper, with a top speed of 140mph (226km/h) and a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 7.3 seconds. However, the engine’s characteristics, with lots of torque at low revs but becoming unpleasantly noisy and increasingly breathless above 4,000rpm, were more suited to a relaxed cruiser than a sports car. A baulky, stiff gearchange did not help in this regard. Handling was excellent, with controllable understeer at the limit. The interior was roomy in front, but dour in typical Volkswagen fashion. Overall, the testers liked the Corrado a lot but regarded the G60 engine as its weak spot. They looked forward to the arrival of the V6-powered model, rumoured for a 1990 launch.
The only significant change made to the Corrado during its production life was the introduction of two new engines for the 1992 model year. The first was an enlarged 1,984cc version of the 16-valve fuel injected engine, delivering the same power but an increase in torque from 119 to 133 lb.ft. (162 to 180 Nm). Of more interest was Volkswagen’s new narrow-angle (15°) 12-valve 2,861cc fuel injected V6 engine producing 188 bhp (140 kW). The model fitted with this unit was dubbed VR6.
North American versions received a slightly smaller 2,781cc version with a reduced power output of 176 bhp (131 kW) and the model was instead dubbed SLC in these markets. The unusual configuration of the engine made it suitable for transverse installation in place of the inline four-cylinder units, although some suspension changes, a wider track and larger wheel arches were required. The bonnet was also given a greater curvature to improve clearance above the engine. At the same time, the Corrado was given a subtle facelift with revised front lighting.
Once again, the new engine was also offered in the Golf, now in Mk3 form, and the Passat B3, so the Corrado’s fundamental issue remained unresolved. Just who was the intended buyer of this expensive coupé from a well regarded but non-premium marque? The diminishing number of potential customers for coupés could choose the slower but substantially cheaper Opel/Vauxhall Calibra, Ford Probe, Nissan 200SX or Toyota Celica(5).
Production of the Corrado continued until 1995. In seven years on the market, a total of just 97,521 were manufactured. Even Karmann’s limited capacity of 80 cars a day (a figure that would have delivered around 135,000 cars over its lifetime) was never tested. In hindsight, Volkswagen should have stuck with its original plan: the Corrado should have been the Scirocco Mk3 and offered in a wider range of engines and trim levels, when it would have stood a better chance of success in a crowded and shrinking market.
(1) The 1981 Volkswagen Polo Mk2 was launched in saloon, hatchback and coupé variants. The hatchback had a vertical tailgate that earned it the nickname ‘breadvan’. The coupé was intended mainly as an alternative for those who found the hatchback’s style too severe.
(2) Because of the Federal 55mph speed limit, the active spoiler on US market Corrados was initially set to deploy at 45mph (73km/h), a speed at which it was ineffective and merely contributed to drag. European models were set to deploy at 75mph (120km/h).
(3) The 16V engine was not fitted with a catalytic converter, so could not be sold in Germany or North America.
(4) The ‘G60’ name describes the supercharger: the uppercase letter G is similar to the scroll shape of the supercharger, which had a 60mm (2½”) diameter inlet.
(5) At least the Corrado no longer faced competition from the Scirocco, which ended production in 1992.