An Uncharacteristic Misstep

A rare market failure for the Volkswagen Group, the 1988 Corrado was a victim of poor product planning rather than its own shortcomings.

1988 Volkswagen Corrado (c)

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.

1974 Volkswagen Scirocco Mk1 (c)

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.

1987 Volkswagen Scirocco Mk2 (c)

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.

1992 Volkswagen Corrado VR6 Storm (c)

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “An Uncharacteristic Misstep”

  1. G40 (Polo) and G60 (rest) Volkswagens used a scroll type supercharger. The active parts with enough phantasy look like a G. The number indicates the width of the moving spiral.

    The G supercharger looked like a good idea in paper but didn’t work in reality.
    It was expensive to make, noisy and unreliable and very quickly gianed a reputation for trouble.

    1. Hi Dave. Thanks for the additional information, and the hypnotic illustration!

  2. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to own a Corrado VR6 before a growing family made it impractical.

    What a great car. OK, it wasn’t commercially successful, but given that it was built by Karmann it was never going to match the volumes of the Scirocco. Anyway, since when did we judge cars solely on their sales performance? Sadly, the public deserves shoals of dull crossovers because that is what they want.

    One query though, Daniel… I am not sure the awful notion of ‘premium’ was really prevalent when the Corrado was on sale. Its direct rivals were myriad sports coupes from a wide range of manufacturers, some of which did better than others. But its austere design did not really resonate with enough people (even though I thought it was delightfully restrained).

    1. Good morning Jacomo. Like you, I was and remain a great fan of the Corrado. It’s a great looking car and would have been my choice against the other coupés I mentioned above

      As regards ‘premium’, while the term wasn’t in common circulation in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was certainly more kudos associated with owning, for example, a BMW than a VW. The yuppies had seen to that! The Corrado was expensive, very much in BMW 3 Series territory in monthly leasing terms. I looked at a Corrado as a potential company car in 1990, but went for a 320i convertible instead. That was, I think, the nub of the Corrado’s problem in terms of sales.

    2. Why shouldn’t the Corrado have matched the Scirocco’s sales numbers just because it was made by Karmann? All Sciroccos were made by Karmann.
      The Corrado didn’t look special enough – for the Manta/Capri brigade it was too restrained and for 924 customers it was just another VW for Celica customers it was too expensive.
      That that’s before you look at the engines which were either slow (16V), unreliable and coarse (G60) or thirsty (VR6).

  3. I drove my Boss’s lease Corrado a few times in 1995. It felt heavy. It was fast, but sluggish too and the steering laborious and really tiring at low speed with those wide tyres- ie parking.

    The looks seemed ok at the time but when I look at them now – maybe with the bias of having driven one I can’t help but feel how blunt and inelegant it is compared to the beautiful ‘Rocco Mk1.

    Less said, as you said about the Mk2 the better. Such a strange resolution of non-ideas.
    Some people graft the Corrado’s front clip onto Mk2 Golfs which is quite a fun—if not a little perverse—practice.

    Someone misread the memo 🙂

    1. Oh dear god… that silver car.

      It reminds me of a Mercedes W124 convertible I once saw in London, that had the four-lamp nose from a later W210 E class grafted onto it. I’m afraid I was too horrified to take a picture.

      Why would people do these things?

  4. Hi Daniel. Could I please make a plea to the authors at DTW to start using hyperlinks for footnotes. It really does make a more pleasant reading experience rather than having to scroll all the way to the bottom then trying to remember where you were in the text and scrolling back up.

    There are a number of WordPress plugins available that make this easy. My favourite type even present the footnote text as a little inline tooltip.

    1. Hi John. That sounds like a good idea, so I’ll kick it upstairs to the executive floor of DTW Towers, where Mr Doyle rules with a rod of iron held in a velvet glove, and await his decision!

      (I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to IT, but am happy to do what I’m told!)

  5. Good article that took me down a happy memory lane. I owned two Corrados in succession, a G60, and a VR6 (SLC).
    The VR6 was terrific. Car & Driver magazine summed it up best-It was a poor man’s Porsche, and a reasonably priced alternative to the 944. The design has aged very well, indeed.

    1. Just before the Corrado was launched, I remember the press calling it a “Porsche 944 rival”. Perhaps the G60 could compete against the base 944 (CAR Magazine made a “Giant Test” between the G60, the 944 and the Audi Coupé 20v), but I think the expectations in the VW were too high.

    2. VW is famous (infamous?) for pricing their vehicles too highly, then and now. A new GTi with good spec tags in at 35,000 USD.

  6. I regret not buying a Corrado VR6 six or seven years ago, when they were still affordable…nowadays as they gained the accolade of “future classic” or “youngtimer”, the prices have gone through the roof. I bought instead a Prelude VTEC, not a bad choice at all, but I guess I would have preferred the VW.

    About the sales failure, those years weren´t the best for VW. Beside the succesful Golf II (and, in the US, Jetta), the range was formed by the inadequate Polo (no 5 door version, meagre equipment levels, short engine choice) and the new Passat, which was rather expensive and not exactly a runaway success. I remember a base 1.8 CL (90 bhp, manual windows etc) costing about the same as an air conditioned 2.0i Sierra, Vectra, 405 or R21. No contest for a lot of buyers.

  7. In case anyone thinks I was kidding about the Mk2 Scirocco closely resembling a stretched Mk2 Polo Coupé, take a look at this:

    The stretched Polo Coupé took all of two minutes!

    1. And both have door mirrors on both sides!
      They’re strikingly similar, the main differences being the Scirocco’s square lights with wraparound indicators. Which would make it more American, I think, were it not for the thin front bumper.

    2. Two Minutes, wow.
      Makes you wonder what the designers did in the rest of their working time until the launch of the production vehicle. (I have my suspicions, but I don’t want to make any insinuations…)

    3. The blacked out B-pillar and the slightly wider based C-pillar actually makes the Polo the more convincing Scirocco replacement.

      And why on earth did VW insist on quarter lights in the front doors for so long? It feels like a retrograde step.

    4. Sorry but no – the Mk2 Scirocco looked nothing like a Polo if you stood next to it. Maybe not as sharp as the original Scirocco but still desirable. Perhaps the Corrado seemed even more desirable because of rarity – I never realised so few were sold. It was only when I found a pair of G60 models at a Killarney car show a few years back that I realised the G-lader was such a failure, although I always wondered why VW stopped using it.

    5. That’s great Daniel! It reminded me of a similarly quick hack job I did with a picture of a Golf V. It was the mid-2000s and I used to be very active on a rather eclectic Spanish car forum. One time the recurrent Golf/Scirocco discussion was going on in one of the forum’s threads and I claimed that the Scirocco was nothing but a squashed Golf V. To prove it, I dusted off the copy of Photoshop I had lying around in my computer’s desktop and simply squashed a picture of the back of a white Golf V. The resemblance was uncanny, haha!

  8. Are the Corrado’s rear lights from the Passat of the time? They look similar.

    The shooting-brake proposal, which uses Audi rear lights, wasn’t great.

    For Corrado fans, this is meant to be a good book on the subject (in German). Lots of prototype pictures, etc

    1. Hi Charles. Assuming you mean the pre-facelift Passat B3, I know what you mean about the rear lights. They were a similar layout, but the Passat’s had a prominent black framing, unlike the Corrado

    2. Actually, I’ve spent a little while looking at the shooting brake, and I rather like it!

      I think that the Audi 80 rear lights fit in rather well.

  9. While we´re here, the latest Scirrocco has been as popular as the Astra 3 door and the Megane coupe. There is not much demand for low, three door cars – they are the opposite of what the market wants which is tall, five door cars.
    Thanks for reminding me about the Corrado – when did I last see one? I didn´t consider them a failure so much as a specialty item. Time has been kind to the design – is it really a shape from ´88? It looks very fresh to my eyes. Of course it´s not a “now” car but it is not marked by odd details that might have been nice at the time. It is very clean and austere – just what the market doesn´t much care for.

    1. Hello Richard – yes, sales for coupés start off at 30k for the first couple of years, then settle down to 10k to 15k per year, thereafter. For pan-European figures, that’s not huge.

      There seem to be a fair few nice Corrados available. I suspect they have a reasonable survival rate, as enthusiasts’ cars. That got me thinking – I can’t recall the last time I saw a Calibra or a Probe.

  10. Why didn’t the Corrado receive the 148 hp 2-litre 16v as a more reliable alternative to the slightly more powerful yet niche G60 in place of the lower spec 134 hp 2-litre 16v engine?

    While the Corrado could have been improved in other areas, apart from say a range-topping limit-run Corrado version of the Golf A59 prototype (had the latter also reached limited-production and been a success) to take on the Celica GT-Four what else did Volkswagen have in the cupboard as far as suitable engine options go?

    1. Bob: the Corrado needed every engine in the Golf range except maybe the smallest petrol and diesel. Volvo sold loads of 480 ES with the somewhat lame Renault unit. Some customers might have liked the style but not insurance premiums of the beefier units.
      Charles: I see the odd Calibra. Series 1 Probes, never. And once a year I might spy a Cougar. The Probe isn´t really that nice a car whereas the Calibra and Cougar are both practical but sleek. Of the set, I´d probably opt for a 2.0 litre Cougar. Car companies have learned not to waste money offering vehicles for car journalists and 4500 real buyers. That´s why the coupe is nearly dead (but Audi and BMW and Mercedes still offer them – is it showing off?)

    2. Hello Richard – I was very surprised (and pleased) when Daniel posted that there would be a GR86. They sell about 1,000 to 1,500 per year in Europe, plus around 500 Subaru BRZs. That said, these models have quite a fan base, so perhaps it’s worth it for the image?

    3. Richard – It is a bit of a tricky one, as far as NA 4-cylinders go can see the Corrado range featuring an 89 hp 1.8 that is later replaced by a 99 hp 1.6 up to a 150 hp 2-litre. Carrying over the Golf’s 75 hp 1.6/1.8 engines would be going too far, whereas the 89-108 hp 1.9 TDi would be a gamble yet could ride on the growing popularity of Diesel Volkswagens (and more post-Fuego sporty Diesels in general) pre-Dieselgate depending on how long a successful Corrado would have remained in production.

      Outside of a limited-run Corrado A59, the VR6s would be another challenge. Understand the early prototypes displaced around 2.4-litres, yet that would have presumably overlapped with the 150 hp 2-litre 16v unless a 2.4-litre VR6 could be tuned to around 160-175 hp to allow the larger 2.8-2.9-litre VR6s to be uprated from around 175 hp to 188+ hp (seem to recall a limited-run Corrado with up to 220 hp).

      Ideally Turbocharged 4-cylinders should have replaced or been produced in place of the G60 pre-1.8 20v Turbo, though would it have negetively impacted Audi even if the latter used turbo 5-cylinders and moving in a different direction from the late-80s and beyond?

  11. I remember the car magazines not being too excited about the G60 engine and also reading somewhere that its performance was too much affected by ambient temperature; being ok on a cool morning, but dropping noticeably on a hot afternoon.

    The Corrado never really warmed my blood. The styling was interesting and original, but not too exciting. To me it always looked rather chunky and narrow, especially when compared to the swanky, cool junior coupes coming from Japan at the time (Celica, Prelude, etc.). I mean, in isolation I suppose the Corrado’s styling worked pretty well and just a few days ago I say a well-kept white Corrado parked and appreciated its design, perhaps more now than when it was more common on the streets. By the way, Corrado is an Italian male name too, as in Corrado Fabi, ex F1 driver from the 80s.

    1. Hi Cesar, Richard and Bob. Thanks for your comments. I agree that the Corrado would probably have done much better if it had replaced the Scirocco and came with a wider range of engines and a lower entry price. Whether VW could have made it pay is a moot point.

      Having posted that picture of the shooting brake above, I’m now wondering if it was the inspiration for the 2008 Scirocco Mk3, with its relatively upright tail:

      Thst seems to be a largely forgotten car. I must look into it further.

    2. I just looked up the numbers for Scirocco Mk3.
      Its biggest markets were China and UK with Germany coming third. They made about a quarter of a million of them which is astonishing when there’s nearly none in sight.

      I remember a young guy at a customer telling me about his test drive in a Scirocco Mk3 1.4 TSI (160 PS). This guy had a Toyota Aygo which as a typical modern urbaite he rarely used. The Scirocco’s performance frightened him to death and he very nearly crashed the demonstrator because it (not him) accelerated in direction of a parked car…

    3. Hi Dave. That sales number is amazing, given how rarely one ever sees a Mk3 Scirocco on the road. That said, there are currently 1,005 examples for sale in the UK on AutoTrader, with prices ranging from £2k to £23.5k, which seems like a lot of cars.

  12. @cesargrauf – I did this too! Here’s the results of a 10% stretch on a mk1 and mk2 ‘Golfocco’
    (or is that Scirolf)
    Mk1 VW Golf / Scrirocco
    Mk2 VW Golf / Scirocco

    and some other VAG Sportback/breadvan tomfoolery that’s semi-relevant:
    Mk1 VW Polo Breadvan
    VW Mk2 Polo breadvan caddy Crewcab

    1. Cool! The brown Polo is awesome and my favorite by far. Do I see a tiny bit of Volvo P1800 in it? The little upkick of the side trim in the rear, perhaps?

    2. I hadn’t noticed before, but Huw has also given the brown ‘breadvan’ Mk1 (facelift)Polo the rear wheel arch treatment from the Mk2. Very cool!

  13. @daniel – I did one the other way. The Scirolo/Polocco. (based on Mk2 Polo wheelbase).
    Hmm. Half day Friday at the design house 🙂

    1. Hi Huw. Nice work! They’re all pretty plausible, except perhaps the Scirolo/Polocco, which looks a bit too much like a Tonka toy. I’m particularly taken with the Polo crew-cab pick-up, although both Golfoccos are also rather striking.

  14. I think the Corrado was more a coupe of the Passat and already no longer a coupe of the Golf.
    But for a car in its price range, the buyer didn’t want to look at the uninspired dashboard of the Passat.
    This might have worked for the Scirocco Mk1, which was more of a Coupe of the Golf, but later it was no longer.

    1. Hi Fred. The Corrado and Passat B3 dashboards weren’t identical but were certainly very similar in design. Here’s the Corrado’s:

      And the Passat’s:

  15. Maybee the Corrado would have a better chance of success as a Scirocco Mk3. But that’s how Volkswagen couldn’t sell Scirocco Mk2 also. And more money maybee won.

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