A VW With Four Doors

The Editor's Views on the New 411L

The advent of an entirely new Volkswagen is an important event, and the 411L is certainly that. It has unitary construction, coil instead of torsion-bar springing, strut-type suspension, a revised air-cooled flat-four engine, and can be had in four-door as well as in two-door form. Having driven the former version for a week, the following are the opinions I formed about it.

Would this be a revolutionary release from Wolfsburg, ensuring the continuence of record sales for the German mass-producer on almost into infinity; or would it be a disappointment? It depends on what viewpoint you take. Staunch VW fanatics will see in the 411 the kind of Volkswagen they have been waiting for. Modernised, much bigger, more refined, and with some sophisticated items of specification. It is a big, rugged car, which, especially in Europe where it is less expensive and in the land of its origin, where they like solid worth, should be very acceptable. To me, although I appreciate its traditional splendid finish, avoidance of unnecessary frills, its ingenious technical approach, and the retention of that clever engine in a newly "unburstable" 90 x 66 mm. 1.7-litre form (68 DIN b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. using 90-octane fuel, mean piston speed 1,811 ft./min, at this speed, and maximum torque developed at 3,300 r.p.m.), it is a rather pedestrian family-car with a number of exceedingly irritating shortcomings.

I set off in this blue four-door 411L, still such a rare car in this country that many VW agents have never seen one, to cover my customary 320 miles between breakfast and tea and had one of the most uncomfortable day's motoring I have experienced since driving that stop-go Morris 1800 at Christmas. There were two reasons for this, both connected with the freezing weather of this February Monday. The screen-washer bottle is pressurised from the spare tyre, with a valve to cut off the air when the pressure in the tyre drops to that specified for the back wheel of the car when fully-laden. Very ingenious! But both spare and washers' bottle live in the front boot, where the fluid in the latter freezes and, being far remote from engine heat and in a sealed compartment, remained that way all day, long after washer fluid on front-engined cars would have thawed out. I did not make very rapid progress; having to get out frequently to clean the screen with a rag.

The other misery was the heater. The 411 has augmented engine heating with a separate petrol-burning heater. This has been described by another tester as requiring probably more skill to drive than the car itself, so it was inconsiderate of VW not to put an instruction book in the car. Try as I might, I could not get the thing to function as I wanted it to function. I lit up the petrol heater, a red light on the facia indicating that it was working, and got not all that much warmth, and what there was all on my face. My feet remained as cold as if I had been driving a vintage car. There are cold-air inlets up on the facia which might have mitigated the face-cooking act, except that they are in the centre and so do not blow on to one's face and as there are no openable ¼-lights, only a cut-away to the front-door windows, which again does not direct air to one's face, I became drowsy and in the end drove without the heater, in cold discomfort. (There are other concepts of safety, besides those laid down for the American market!) I never did discover how to achieve the desirable arrangement of cool/cold air to the face and warm/hot air into the car, which, in view of the 411's elaborate heating and ducting system, including rear extractor vents, was a pity. I was disappointed the VW instruction book didn't contain a cure for chilblains . . .

Another disappointment was that the test car had automatic transmission. This works smoothly if unhurried and has "1" and "2" holds if the well-placed, smooth-as-oiled silk, central gear lever is used. But keeping the lever in "3", or automatic, there is an awful lot of fussy whirring as the gears change themselves up and down, and if the kick-down is used and held, upward changes happen rather early, at roughly 41 and 63 m.p.h. I got into the habit of using "hold-2", but the engine then gets very noisy in not quite reaching an indicated 70 m.p.h. Quadrant movement on a gear lever is never so nice as a gate, even an invisible one, and so I remained disappointed that I had not been able to try the new VW with its excellent manual four-speed gearbox. Another thing against this automatic is that it provides only three speeds—9.72, 6.85 and 3.67-to-1.

There were some more minor irritants. For instance, the Germans are very careful about personal possessions, so the VW's luggage boot release is hidden within the decently-large lockable cubby hole, the release for the engine-boot lid is concealed in the n/s door pillar, and the fuel tank filler is covered by a flap which is opened by pulling a knob on the o/s of the scuttle, loose and untidy on the test car. As the boot-lid and the fuel-filler flap would not re-lock unless the controls were pushed home, a forgetful driver found himself running dementedly round the vehicle at refuelling or unloading stops. Nor was I sure whether I liked the appearance of the 411. It is on station-wagon lines like a Teutonic version of a Renault 16, with a long, almost vintage snout and a brief, skirted behind. And though it makes for neatness to combine all the frontal lamps behind single glasses, as Mercedes-Benz have shown, the Hella headlamps on the new VW are very plain and large (lens area 12,6 in. x 6.3 in.) and there are protruding flasher-units.

That is enough of preliminary criticism. For this grown-up Volkswagen has some very commendable aspects. The driving seat, for instance. This not only adjusts fore and aft and has fully-reclining squabs controlled by big knobs, but it can be set up or down and has means of changing the lumber support in the small of the back. Consequently, it is impossible not to be comfortable in this seat, although it gets a trifle hard towards the end of a long driving stint, being decently supporting without the sponginess of many modern seat cushions, which hold the occupant in place by engulfing the buttocks. The front wheel arch puts the treadle accelerator too far to the left, however. The facia layout is simple and uncomplicated, a VW tradition, but I prefer to overlook the "unpolished wood" finish, attractive until one opens the cubby hole and finds that it is stuck-on paper . . .

In effect, there are two dials, four knobs. The former are big Vdo instruments, a 110 m.p.h. speedometer, casually calibrated with figures only at 20 m.p.h. intervals and a total non-decimal mileage recorder, and a clock of the same size, which incorporates various warning lights adjacent to tiny symbols indicating their message. The knobs control wipers/washers and, on the right, lamps. A substantial l.h. stalk actuates headlamps flashing/dipping and the turn-indicators. The wipers' knob retains an endearing VW tendency of screwing off when turned anti-clockwise; the l.h. cubby lid is opened by a matching knob. There are closeable air vents at the facia ends and swivelling fresh-air inlets in the middle of the facia, with recessed horizontal knurled knobs to regulate direction. The petrol heater, which draws from the main fuel supply, using from 0.35 to one pint an hour, is controlled by two pull-up floor levers (of which one had shed its knob and was very sharp) and two tiny knobs inset into the floor and describing half-arcs. Heating is thermostatically stabilised but, as I have said, I never get any satisfaction from it. There is a vaguely exciting instruction to the effect that the petrol burner must be switched off while replenishing the fuel tank; its blower runs on, to cool the burner, making a noise which will convince the neighbours' children that you have invested in a steam-car or built a turbine into the boot! The electric blower of the engine-fed heating system is also noisy.

A fourth, pull-out, facia knob looks after crash-warning lighting. There is a fuel gauge, calibrated R, ½, 1/1, in the speedometer face. Apart from the useful cubby hole there are flap-pockets in the front doors and on the backs of the front-seat squabs and a rather useless little shelf on the right under the facia. The steering column can be locked with the ignition key. The deep screen sill is finished in matt black and has a hand-hold for the front-seat passenger. The entire interior finish and trim is fully in keeping with Volkswagen's reputation for quality. The front boot, which may seem a bit restricted to users of conventional cars, is the biggest VW have given us yet; the spare wheel is under the floor, the jack neatly clipped to the o/s wall, and the boot-lid self-supporting. The boot is as well sealed as the VW body, in which putting on the heater causes odd whistling sounds as it becomes pressurised, in spite of the escape vents.

The doors possess those clever VW plated locks-cum-internal handles, big arm-rests, convenient but too-stiff press-in external handles and sill-locks for the child-proof back-doors. The wide back seat has a central folding arm-rest, and the VW 411 could seat six if required; the roof line is high and the window area generous. Upholstery is in ventilated plastic and the floor and the luggage space behind the back seat are carpeted. The door "keeps" work well, there are swivelling visors with vanity mirror, and an external mirror, which the wind blew out of position. There are coat-hooks-cum-"pulls" and lidded, recessed ash-trays. A touch of refinement is a rubber bib to the fuel filler which protects the paint and contains a holder for the filler cap. The steering wheel has a padded Y-spoke which sounds a subdued horn, the Wolfsburg emblem with that rather cheeky wolf being found in the centre.

The engine starts promptly under Winter conditions with the accelerator-actuated automatic choke but engaging the automatic transmission tends to make it stall until a few minutes have elapsed. With the engine idling I was surprised to see the steering wheel and body vibrating as if this was a commercial vehicle. I was also surprised that there should be so much noise from an engine way out behind the back wheel. But unfortunately there is, accentuated by the action of the automatic transmission changing up and down. This, and wind roar by the o/s door pillar, made the car tiring to drive for long distances. There is also no real acceleration (0-60 m.p.h. in 17.7 sec.) and because of this the 411's speed on British roads is apt to be nearer 60 than 70 m.p.h. The low engine speed becomes an asset at higher m.p.h. and the idea, in the VW idiom, is that top speed, 90 m.p.h., also the all-day cruising speed. The test car had run less than 5,000 miles and the best I could get was an indicated 85 m.p.h.

The new suspension, the semi-trailing-link rear-end, and revised weight distribution have unquestionably greatly inproved the handling. The VW 411 corners satisfactorily for a family car, with a trace of mild understeer which becomes neutral if power is taken off. There is not too much roll and no protest from the 15 in. tyres, which on the test car were Michelin "X". Yet the rear engine location provides the old propensity to grip on slippery hills, as snow-coated Welsh acclivities proved to my satisfaction. Apart front a tendency to wallow, the ride is good, for any pitching which develops is mild. In this age of too-lively suspension, that of the VW 411 is fairly commendable. There is, however, considerable thump over road irregularities, which can sound quite alarming as the rear wheels take bad "yumps". The steering is smooth and light until castor action on lock intervenes, without being particularly accurate in the hairsbreadth sense. It is geared 3½-turns, lock-to-lock, inclusive of some free movement in the recirculating ball mechanism, for a turning circle of 32.4 ft. The brakes, which have a dual-circuit hydraulic system for the self-adjusting discs and rear drums, are powerful and foolproof, but require heavy pressure and are thus somewhat insensitive. The handbrake is well placed between the front seats.

The VW 411 is something of a superior, if not a luxury, family saloon. So it is splendid to find that the engine, having a c.r. of only 7.8-to-1, will burn the least expensive 90-octane fuel. It gave a consumption of 25.0 m.p.g., inclusive of using the petrol heater. The tank holds 11 gallons, so a range of around 275 miles should be commonplace. The engine is a fine piece of engineering, of which not much can be seen, as it is mounted low in the rear boot, the lid of which is self-supporting. The fan-belt is virtually inaccessible, the plugs just reachable, the dip-stick a little tricky to withdraw and the screw oil-filler cap rather low down. After 500 miles the dip-stick showed about a ½-pint of oil to be required. Reversing lamps and full rubber ribbing of the massive bumpers are standard. A heated rear window and a steel sliding roof are available as extras, and the test car had a Blaupunkt radio, and well-stowed WaSo safety-belts.

Had I been warm, and able to see through the windscreen, I might have liked the new VW better. It is obviously a great forward step and one cannot but respect a car which, although turned out in enormous numbers, is presented with the flair usually associated with limited-production, far more expensive makes—look at the quality of VW publicity and owner publications, for example, and the fine finish (three coats, rubbed down three times) and trim of all the models from Wolfsburg.

The VW 411 is an honest car, for those who wish to invest in sound engineering, quality and individuality. It requires no chassis lubrication and now has a 12-volt battery, isolated from heat under the driver's seat, supplied by an a.c. generator. There are 12 fuses, accessible on the left of the front compartment. Whether it can be called a modern car within the meaning of adequate performance and quiet-running, I find an embarrassing question for a former VW fanatic to be asked! In this country the four-door de luxe Automatic costs £1,517, inclusive of tax.—W. B.