A year ago it was the Rabbit GTI, a fast-off-the-mark performance car that zooms from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 9.7 seconds. What the speedy performer did for Volkswagen of America (VWOA) was pump new vitality into the Rabbit, which was rapidly running out of wind.
For 1984, it's the Rabbit convertible and notchback Jetta GLI that get the high-performance boost.
''The Jetta GLI is an extension of the Rabbit GTI image,'' asserts James R. Fuller, head of the Volkswagen division of VWOA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the West German automaker.
The performance-tire-equipped car uses the same engine as the Rabbit GTI, a 4 -cylinder, 1.8-liter, fuel-injected power plant rated at 90 horsepower at 5,500 rpms. Like the GTI before it, the GLI moves with zest when the driver steps on the gas. Increasingly, as fuel prices remain steady and availability continues strong, more motorists are demanding just this kind of car instead of the slowpoke vehicles of the late 1970s and early '80s.
Indeed, the black-trimmed Jetta GLI (with a window sticker of $8,690 compared with $7,390 for the basic Jetta), responds to the driver the way a car should. Its taut suspension, crisp handling, and peppy engine put an element of excitement into the task of driving a car.
Volkswagen is still pursuing its goal of rebuilding its sagging empire in the United States.
While the company has just regained its profitability in the US market following a rash of bad years, Noel Phillips, president of Volkswagen of America Inc., won't say whether the VW division itself is making any money. What is true is that its Porsche-Audi division is providing a large inflow of black ink.
As for 1984, staying profitable ''will be tough,'' according to Mr. Phillips.
VW now has somewhat over 2 percent of the total auto market in the US, a far cry from the 5 percent stake it had during the heyday of the beetle a decade ago.
''The company still has a lot of work to do,'' Phillips concedes.
The company continues to emphasize its Germanic roots in the absence of an all-new car for 1984.
To help it get a better grip on the American highway, VWOA is trying to revive an image that it had lost in the US - West German precision engineering as well as hard-to-break durability. About 75 percent of all people buying a small car in the US today plan to keep it 5 to 7 years compared with 2 or 21/2 years a few years ago.
The Americanization of VW, following the opening of its western Pennsylvania assembly plant in 1978, helped to precipitate the company's long slide. Thus, all of its troubles cannot be laid on the doorstep to Japan.
Also, the Rabbit has had a less than smooth ride since its arrival in the US in 1975, its reputation harmed by quality lapses which, the company asserts, have now all been repaired..
Pointing to the notchback Jetta, Mr. Fuller asserts: ''We don't want to be known only as a Rabbit company or a fuel-economy company.'' The zippy performance of the Rabbit GTI and Jetta GLI are part of the new image VWOA is trying to hone.
What it cannot reclaim is the low price of its high-flying beetle days. Even so, to meet the marketplace head on, VWOA has slashed the price of some of its cars for 1984, simplified the model mix, and tightened its organization - all the while gazing toward 1985, when it'll have a successor car to the winded Rabbit.
The Michigan-based company will spend $200 million in retooling its Pittsburgh-area assembly plant and West Virginia stamping plant to produce the new car.
What is almost certain is this: The Rabbit replacement car will have a new name. ''The Rabbit name is just too cute,'' remarks Peter Weiher, executive vice-president of sales and marketing for VWOA.
The Rabbit is still known as the Golf in the rest of the world. The new car which is to replace it looks similar, but is somewhat larger. The new model went on sale in Europe a few weeks ago. The company says it is committed to evolutionary change, not a revolution.
The notchback-style Jetta shows a gradual deemphasis on the hatchback, typified by the Rabbit. ''The US is a notchback society,'' asserts Irvin W. Rybicki, vice-president of design for General Motors. ''Selling fastbacks in this country, other than on sports machines, is very difficult.''
VWOA hopes to double Jetta sales in the US, from 16,000 in the last model year to 30,000 in 1984.
''The Rabbit GTI has done a big job for VW,'' declares VWOA president Phillips. Indeed, it picked up the slack left as diesel sales went down the chute in the last 12 months. VW diesel sales are off 60 percent compared with a year ago.
Both the Rabbit GTI and the Jetta GLI can jump from 0 to 50 miles an hour in 7.1 seconds, and 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. This is the kind of spirited performance that today's car buyers want. With the faster engines in the GM J-cars, for instance, the once-laggard subcompacts are making swift gains in the marketplace.
The Jetta GLI is making the kind of tire tracks with which VW wants to be identified in the future.