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Leaping beyond the Rabbit, VW takes a swing with its new Golf

-30 It's THE ''big VW event'' of the '80s - a renaissance, says Noel Phillips, who heads up the Volkswagen organization in the United States. And he's absolutely right. Because if the restyled Golf, nee Rabbit in the US, doesn't make the grade, then the West German auto company is up a creek.

But after test-driving the whole lot on the West Coast, I don't think VW has too much to worry about, assuming the public is in a forgiving mood. The German carmaker is counting on the short memory of the consumer and buyer willingness to give them a chance.

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VW's '85-model Golf line is a subtle redesign of the angular, 10-year-old Rabbit. Given all the competition for the car buyer's attention, the company's task is to persuade potential buyers to sit down and take a ride. Even though the new Golf looks a lot like a refashioned Rabbit, it's really a lot more.

A major thrust was to sharply improve the quality of the product and reduce production costs. The company's roboticized Hall 54 in Wolfsburg, West Germany, for example, is among the world's most automated assembly plants.

Initial work on the new Golf II began in 1977, according to VW, and the evolutionary changes were all done ''in house.'' Design of the original Golf (Rabbit) was by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design. ''We decided to stay with an evolutionary design,'' explains Dr. Wolfgang Lincke, head of passenger-car development for Volkswagenwerk AG. Mr. Giugiaro also was asked to provide a new design, but, says Dr. Lincke, ''it was the most conservative of all and we turned it down.''

The new rendition of the Golf is larger, more rounded, better crafted than the car it succeeds, and a lot more ''slippery.'' The coefficient of drag was reduced from 0.43 to 0.35, a dramatic improvement. The result is a reduction in air friction as the car moves down the road and a gain in fuel economy.

Wheelbase and track were increased, while the distance from the accelerator pedal to the back of the rear seat is increased by 2 inches. This added space moves the Golf from its earlier classification as a subcompact to a compact.

A larger-capacity plastic gasoline tank is used, raising the fuel content from 40 liters to 55. More insulated parts mean less roughness and noise. The interior noise level in the Golf, for example, is reduced by 3 decibels on the A scale.

In a phrase, VW believes in ''evolutionary change'' as a matter of course, even though the switch from the air-cooled, rear-drive beetle to the front-drive , water-cooled Rabbit was an unbridled Revolution with a capital R.

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A standard 1.8-liter, 85-horsepower Golf jumps from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a scant 10.3 seconds. The power-packed GTI version of the car comes in at 9.5. The brand-new Jetta claims an elapsed time of 10.5 seconds. By contrast, the diesel-equipped Golf takes 16 seconds.

You really have to test drive the new Golf to understand what the car is all about. You can't rely only on what may be a familiar shape.

As for the high-performance Golf GTI, it was a spiffy little dynamo when it hit the road in the US two years ago, and for 1985 it boasts 11 percent more power. The ''down'' side is that it won't be available until February. I drove the GTI some 600 miles on the West Coast and found it a super upgrade from the super car of '84.

It wasn't the GTI that had the image problem, anyway, but the plain old Rabbit.

The VW organization in the United States is hoping to start afresh. The image of the original Rabbit was tarnished with early mechanical as well as quality problems. Two years ago the company decided to ''go back to its roots.''

VW also plans to bring in a 4-wheel-drive Quantum in '85, plus a 4 -wheel-drive van.

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