From its beginnings in 1937 as the "people's car", Volkswagen has come a long way.
Until the 1970’s all of their vehicles featured a flat 4 cylinder, air cooled engine in the rear. This combination, with most of the vehicle’s weight over the driving wheels made for great traction in the snow.
In an era before 4 wheel drive was common, these were among the best winter vehicles; that is if the heat worked. Among the problems with these air cooled VWs was the heating system which could be unreliable as parts broke or rust holes allowed air to escape from the body ducts. While there is a certain romance attached to the old Volkswagens there was a lot not to like: they faired poorly in crashes; rust seriously affected the heating system; they were noisy and usually had numerous oil leaks.
While I worked on many, and they were fun to work on, they weren’t great vehicles.
The Rabbit was the change car for VW introducing a water cooled, inline 4 cylinder engine in a front wheel drive configuration. This was an awesome change and ushered in the eventual elimination of the flat 4, rear drive (though it stayed on in the Vanagon into the early 1990s). The Rabbit morphed into the Jetta and Golf and has evolved several times.
Right into the mid 1990’s these front wheel drive Volkswagens were very reliable vehicles and inexpensive to fix. Aftermarket parts were plentiful and very low priced as many were made in Mexico and Brazil. This was in an era before cheap Asian imports. An example was the average drum brake wheel cylinder for an American car was about $25 whereas the same part for a VW was $8.
This made for very inexpensive repairs and a truly economical car.
As Volkswagen has evolved with the times and made fancier and more enjoyable to drive cars some of their quality unfortunately has gone. From the mid 1990s and on there have been numerous problems with some cars. The worst of these concerns is with the automatic transmissions with many failing at low mileage and costing $5000 and up to repair.
These are not the sort of repair costs that one expects on a lower price point vehicle! Electrical concerns also plague these vehicles and have added frustration and additional repair costs for many VW owners.
Not all is bad however, for the VW’s of the past decade are very nice cars to drive and their engines are very reliable.
One area of VW leadership is with the diesels.
The Rabbit diesel was one of the first available cars with this engine and proved very reliable and cheap to run, though it moved with less than rabbit speed. Enter the newest VW diesel offerings and you get the best of both worlds: outstanding fuel economy along with fabulous acceleration and barely a rattling noise that was so commonly associated with diesel engines.
Package this engine to a standard transmission (to avoid the troublesome automatic) and you’ve got a very economical car that is luxurious to drive.