In January, visitors to Iceland might expect snow from wall to wall and extreme temperatures that threaten to turn skin into parchment. But instead, the island where we had an exclusive first go in Volkswagen's Golf-sized Concept A crossover welcomed us with partly cloudy skies and a relatively balmy 46 degrees.
The surroundings are breathtaking. A huge sheet of glacial ice that shines and glistens in a thousand different shades of blue lies in front of us. More than eight centuries old at the base, it looks a lot more solid than it is. After the Concept A takes a couple of runs in each direction, ominous cracking noises suggest it is time to move to safer ground. This gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at the Volkswagen. The front end is longer and taller than expected, partly to meet new European pedestrian protection requirements, partly to counter a surprisingly short rear overhang. But with the exception of the detailing, we are looking at the final version of the grille, the lights, the bumper, and the air intakes.
From the A-pillars back, however, this concept differs from the future production vehicle. Highlights include a low roofline with an integrated folding fabric top, a stubby rear end with wraparound taillights, daring rear suicide doors, and the absence of any B-pillars. Is this body style a designer's fantasy? "[VW boss] Wolfgang Bernhard likes this treatment," concedes Marc Lichte, father of the fifth-generation Golf and chief of VW's Design Studio Two. "But if it ever gets approved, it would be added only as a second version at a later stage."
VW will introduce the as-yet-unnamed four-door production model in early 2008, about six months behind schedule. The company optimistically predicts global sales of up to 150,000 units per year. Widely known as Project Marrakesh, the crossover will be available with either front- or four-wheel drive and with a choice of gasoline or diesel engines. The mini-SUV will feature a standard manual transmission or the dual-clutch DSG gearbox but no low range for the four-wheel-drive system. Taller than the Golf, the Concept A sports larger wheels, more ground clearance, hill descent control, and plenty of underbody protection.
A sensor in the beautifully crafted aluminum handle pops the door open. The cabin isn't exactly huge, but with no pillar in the way and with the rear door open, the interior looks positively vast. Having said that, there are only four seats, and the roofline suggests a lower-than-normal ceiling. The driver's seat, which is trimmed in a tasteful blend of shiny black leather, charcoal suede, and gray fabric, whirs into position. The multifunction steering wheel adjusts for both rake and reach, and the dashboard looks both minimalist and modern. The large air vents are covered with a chiseled dark metal matrix, the glossy black leather trim creates a high-class lounge effect, and the contrasting bits of brightwork give the interior a subtle, high-tech ambience.
At this relatively early stage in the development process, function hasn't yet fused with form. The speedo needle rests at zero, the water and fuel gauges are set at random, the navigation system is off duty, and the buttons labeled Diff and Level are placebos. But the ignition works, and so does the engine, a generic rattle-and-snarl 138-hp, 2.0-liter TDI. This is only a stopgap powerplant. For the Geneva auto show, where the Concept A was unveiled, VW prepared a clean and frugal 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline Twincharger engine. Details are sketchy, but it seems safe to expect 150 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque along with a top speed of more than 125 mph. The six-speed gearbox performs like a pro, but the heavy steering is hampered by a turning radius that must have been modeled after the nearby Arctic Circle.
We are able to see the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system in action when we cross a small stream and drive up a hill. Stones fly as wheels spin, but the buggy never bottoms out, and it escapes without damage to the paint or the polished wheels. This VW is not a poseur. The Concept A delivers, and since it's light, compact, and well-engineered, it promises to be as competent off the beaten track as it is on the highway.
But show cars typically are less about ability and more about stance and proportions. The Concept A scores by striking a credible compromise between presence and purposefulness. The front is dominated by a grille that features two different surface treatments-polished on the vertical stuff, matte on the horizontal elements. The side view is sportier and more elegant, but the large-diameter wheels make it clear that this is not an ordinary passenger car. From the rear, the split liftgate gives access to a wide and deep cargo deck that is far too nicely trimmed ever to be ruined by real luggage. What about aerodynamics? "We can't disclose the drag figure yet," says Lichte, "but we have done our homework."
Work on the Concept A began in early 2004. Initially, it was VW's intention to develop the car with Audi, but Audi needed a vehicle that could accommodate at least a token third row and a V-8, so the price and size points no longer meshed. As a result, VW did its own thing. But when Bernhard took over in early 2005, he didn't like the front-end design, so it was redone, along with a host of details. More time was lost in the course of several rounds of cost cutting. Finally, labor negotiations at the Wolfsburg plant where the vehicle will be built took another six months. "But all's well that ends well," says Lichte. "We created a shape that reflects the car's competence in the different environments it competes in. We came up with a vehicle that appeals to common sense as well as to emotion. The Concept A is a dream come true, a proper Volkswagen." It had better be, because VW is extraordinarily late to this market segment.