Volkswagen is ubiquitous and a tarnished US brand shines

Volkswagen Santana Taxis 1

Whenever you go to a foreign city for the first time, you can't help but check out the cars, right? So it is for me on my first visit to Shanghai, for the Shanghai's biennial auto show.

Physically, the city is reminiscent of Tokyo, with low, squat buildings in the old sections and modern high rises in the new part of town. But whereas many of the cars in Tokyo are on a tiny scale because of the crowded conditions (and the tax laws), small cars are a rare sight in China's most populous city. What's also rare on Shanghai streets is politeness one sees of drivers in Tokyo-or even New York; and continual horn honking is mandatory.

Shanghai is like New York, however, in its rather perverse embracing of large sedans. As the Ford Crown Victoria is to Manhattan, the Volkswagen Quantum is to Shanghai. It's the featured ride of cops and cabbies, and you see more Quantums-here called the Santana-than any other car. Quantum lovers (shout out to Volkswagen PR guy Keith Price), this is your Xanadu.

You see these Chinese-made VWs both in their original body style, which we remember from its U.S. tour of duty in the mid '80s, and a slightly modified, but still easily recognizable later version. Most are taxis, their colors identifying the cab companies, each of which, we were advised, offers a different level of professionalism and honesty (beware the dark red ones).

The next most oft-seen make is Buick. That's at least partly because GM puts a Buick name on a whole slew of its models over here. Our recently departed Century/Regal (another locally-made product) is big here, as is the Buick-badged GM minivan. But there's also a Lucerne that's different from ours, a Buick version of the Suzuki Reno, and a Buick based on the Daewoo/Opel Kadett. At the Shanghai auto show, GM is introducing the Buick Park Avenue, a new, rear-wheel-drive big sedan, which also was offered to Buick's U.S. dealers, who passed on it. It's said they were worried it would compete with the Lucerne. With thinking like that, it's no wonder Buicks are a more common sight in China's biggest city than they are in ours.

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