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Story by Byron Hurd

For the last two years I have introduced myself in many a letter with some variation of the phrase “aspiring young journalist.” Loosely translated, it means “I’m fresh out of school, I worked at my college paper, and I’d really, really like a job well above my level of qualification. But I can write, I promise!”

To make matters worse, if you really want to join the ranks of the elite automotive journalists, you need a few things going for you, and most of them are championship trophies and Pulitzer prizes. I don’t have any of those (unless you count the plasti-trophy I got for finishing an entire year of little league). Fortunately, all it takes to be a blogger is internet access, a hosting site, and an ego big enough to inspire the confidence that other people give a damn what you think. Check, check and check!
When Jack asked me to write an intro column, I dutifully scraped together 1,400 words about how awesome I am and threw them his way. It seemed an odd request at the time, but after looking over my submission, Jack asked me to hold off on the intro piece and instead write on a more focused topic. I did, and you guys ended up with 1,500 words about how awesome the RX-8 is instead (A significant improvement, some might say). But take my word for it; I am pretty awesome.

So as not to make the transition into my role any more awkward, I’m going to stick to the focused topics and let my experiences trickle through them. Hopefully, over the next few weeks, you will all get to know me and come to appreciate the perspective I bring to S:S:L. This week, I want to chat about a subject that has been harped on many, many times by enthusiasts and the press alike, and yet still remains quite near and dear to my heart: Volkswagen.

If I’d had my druthers, my summer, 2007 adventure through Europe would have been months longer and enjoyed entirely from the front seat of a plush, sophisticated rental car. Reality has a funny way of curbing such ambitions, however, and my girlfriend and I settled on two and a half weeks touring the U.K., France and Germany, and nearly all of it by train. In Germany, however, I would have it no other way; we were going to rent a car, even if for a weekend. I had certain duties – obligations, even – that simply could not be fulfilled from coach class on the Deutsche Bahn. As handy as our Eurail passes were, they simply couldn’t deliver the same satisfaction as a flat-out run on the Autobahn. And worse, I’d hate to have to tear up my Car Enthusiast Club Card over something as silly as a weekend’s rental fee.

And when we arrived in Kaiserslautern, we immediately hailed a cab to Enterprise. Waiting there was our mighty chariot, our furious steed, just aching to blitz the Autobahn and carve the 100 corners of the Green Hell. Waiting there was a Š koda Fabia. Actually, it was a Š koda Fabia Combi. Yeah – it matters. I’ll elaborate for those who aren’t quite up to speed on their European penalty box nomenclature. You see, roughly translated, “Combi” is German for, “We took one of the smallest cars we offer and we turned it into a station wagon!”

Combi!


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Step four: profit! You see, our ‘06 Fabia was an A04 platform car, meaning it shared its basic layout and dimensions with the Volkswagen Polo. And while that wouldn’t make it the smallest of cars in the Volkswagen AG family, it was certainly far from one of the largest. It had 73bhp, or roughly what you’d get if you turbocharged a chainsaw, and it was not exactly a looker. When our family back in the UK asked what we’d gotten as a rental, they laughed so hard it startled me. “A Š koda!? When we were young you wouldn’t be caught dead in a Š koda.” And this from the former owner of a Vauxhall Cavalier. Yes, that Cavalier.

I know what you’re thinking. Such a modest vehicle would probably blend in humbly amongst the thousands of other compacts littering the streets of eastern Germany. And normally, you’d be right. There was just one slight problem: It was blue. And I mean blue. There are dark blues; there are light blues; there are metallic blues and then there’s this blue. There’s no other way to describe it. You know that flashy blue young Audi buyers like to get on their old twin-turbo S4s? That’s the one. It was blue in the way Michael Jackson is white – so conspicuous you can’t help but notice.

But when we got in, we were greeted by what was essentially a pared-down MkIV/MkV Golf interior – not terribly exciting, but functional and intuitive. The seats were comfortable and the cargo area was fantastic for such a little car. As we made our way from the rental office to our temporary home at Ramstein Air Force Base, navigating the strange roads (without SatNav, mind you) and focusing on everything but the driving experience, it didn’t occur to me just how competent this little car was. It wasn’t until I realized just how little attention I’d had to pay to what was, to me anyway, a brand-new vehicle, that it struck me just how fantastic it was. When merging into 60mph traffic on the A6, I wasn’t thinking about how this bloated, underpowered blueberry slushie was going to get us run over by stampeding Autobahn traffic. I simply pointed us where we wanted to go, mashed the gas, changed the gears and went about my business, and our little Fabia never missed a beat.

And this set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Like a loyal puppy who had gotten into a batch of permanent markers, and had caused them to have an upset stomach, the Fabia never left our side. The only difference here is that the Fabia wasn’t required to take something like these cbd dog treats to help calm their stomach and pains so they would start to feel better. Although if this was the case, the car would definitely stick beside us instead of venturing off until we couldn’t see it. The (familiarly phallic) shifter had decent feedback and reasonable throws and the clutch, while a bit long on travel, had an easily-located engagement point and was ridiculously simple to modulate. Sure, it was a little buzzy on the highway at 80mph+, and well-geared though it was, it wouldn’t win any drag races, but these qualities were easily overlooked. It was a genuinely good car, and it had all of the nice, simple conveniences you ask from an everyday appliance. It had power windows, power mirrors and rain-sensing wipers – the perfect combination of extras for everyday driving, I think – and the luxury amenities ended there. It was simple; it was satisfying; and best of all, it was inexpensive.


The F1 track, seen from the outside of the Nurburg Castle high above.


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I arrived at the Nàrburgring fully expecting the honeymoon to end. We walked the tourist paddock before the gates opened, admiring then-unreleased beauties of German design. There sat a black Audi R8, a red BMW M3 (a press tester from the U.K., judging by the RHD configuration), and a black Audi S5, their paint gleaming in the German sunlight. I eyed Golf GTIs with envy, wishing I had something even that sporty at my disposal. But no, all I had was our little Fabia, which I had cleverly hidden in an overflow lot behind some rather large trees. When the tone sounded and the gates opened, everybody sprinted for their cars and began to line up. As fate would have it, we queued up behind the only other Fabia in Nàrburg. As it turned out, he was only queuing for the exit. I should have guessed. Nobody with a lick of sense was going to take such a car on the ‘ring. I knew right then that I had lost my mind. I threw in a CD I’d made just for this occasion, and made my way to the gate.
As I followed the blend line up the main straight toward the old start/finish, I immediately had to hug the inside and signal others to pass. Clearly, there was no podium finish in my future on this tourist lap. Porsches, Nissans and BMWs flew by one by one as I signaled them around. In turns, I’d point fast traffic in front of me, giving them their line and taking up as little of their time as possible, but then I’d tuck in behind them and graze each apex, the Fabia moving obediently with every input. Somewhere around Adenaur Forst, however, I encountered my first foe: A MkIII Golf full of idiots.

I trailed the Golf patiently through Breidscheid, and then with increasing impatience through Bergwerk. My girlfriend could sense my growing frustration as I’d signal to pass, be shut out, and then have to yield the line again to faster traffic. “Even if you pass him, he’s still faster than you,” she said. “That’s only because he’s making me slow down in and out of the corners,” I replied. And while he wasn’t any faster, he was in front and I was behind, and that meant I was responsible for twice as much information as he was. His friends in the back seat found this quite amusing, apparently, as they turned to watch me every time I’d signal for a pass. Yeah, go ahead and laugh at the ink stain, smartasses; your time will come.

And it did, at Hohe Acht. By that point, I was sick of having to brake at every corner just to keep from putting his back seat passengers through his rear window. I signaled, ignored the fact that he didn’t, and blew past him on the inside. He faded quickly in the rearview and we didn’t see him again that day.

As we approached the main straight at the end of the lap, The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” whispered from the speakers. I reached down and turned up the volume. The setting sun caught the old Burg in the distance as we cruised under the gantry and I settled into a Zen-like state that I had never felt before and have yet to feel again. There I was, nearly 2,000 miles from my home and my car, and I had glimpsed automotive Nirvana from the driver’s seat of a Š koda Fabia Combi. Amazing.

In the end, what got me the most about the Skoda was its complete lack of pretension. Volkswagen of America could do well to look to their little European brother for inspiration. At some point in the 90s, VWoA bought into the idea that “European” must be synonymous with “premium,” and the brand has been struggling ever since. As consumers and enthusiasts, we have ourselves partly to blame, too, because we’ve come to expect (and even demand) a certain level of luxury from VW while brands like Mini get a free pass. Is there really a difference between them? I don’t think there should be, but I’ll leave that up to you.
VWoA keeps insisting that they’re delivering what the people want, but the problem is that just about every other player in their price range is delivering to a lot more of those people. Companies like Mazda get it. They deliver practical, capable vehicles that appeal to folks who want more than an appliance but don’t want or need a $17k pseudo-Volvo. Judging by the explosion of Mazda’s small-car sales over the last five years, I think it’s safe to assume that there’s room in the market if companies are willing and able to deliver competitive product.

And by no means do I want to convey the idea that VW builds an inferior car. Their quality has improved, their current generation of small cars is very well-executed and they’re managing to hold on to the tiny sliver of the market that they still have cornered. That formula can’t last forever though, and as the dollar continues to slide against the Euro, VWoA’s margins become slimmer and slimmer. We’ve already seen them pare down their U.S. offerings, eliminating several niche options and even toying with the idea of putting entire model ranges on the chopping block. How much further can this go before VWoA loses its purpose altogether?
As enthusiasts, we have to step back and accept that volume does not automatically translate into a poor driving experience. VW would do well to think about the difference between what the people want and what they’ve come to expect. Stubbornness can work for you when it’s a punchy, underdog-esque enthusiasm, but once you reach the point of unsubstantiated hubris, your fans are going to move on.

Volkswagen: It’s What the Drivers Wanted.

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Jack Baruth

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