I WENT TO lunch and never came back. The day was too beautiful, the road too inviting; besides, I get paid to drive.The car was the 1994 Volkswagen Jetta III GLS sedan, a not-terribly swift thing. No matter, I wasn't rushing. Along Skyline Drive in Virginia's Blue Ridge, the brilliance of spring could lift the most trodden spirits. At least, I thought so; the Jetta III GLS seemed to have other ideas. The car was a bit wheezy in the heights. I assumed it had a pollen allergy. But actually, the Jetta III's Bosch Motronic engine management system was just trying to do its thing. It uses a microcomputer to monitor stuff such as altitude and temperature in a bid to increase fuel economy and reduce tailpipe emissions. Vehicle performance suffers a tad in the process. But, what the heck -- a drive along the Blue Ridge Skyline would be meaningless if there were no trees. Background: Maybe Volkswagen won't disappear from the U.S. market after all. For a while, I had my doubts. The company seemed to be working overtime on perfecting managerial incompetence -- misjudging the market; shutting down its manufacturing facility in Westmoreland, Pa., just when most of the world's major car makers began putting plants in the United States; and then, last year, introducing the 1993 Jetta III so late on the East Coast that people here thought it was a 1994 model. But now that the 1994 models are out, it's easy to see the difference. For example, the new car generally is done right. Those dumb automatic front-shoulder harnesses are gone. Sensible three-point, manually latching belts are in their place, along with standard dual-front air bags. Side-impact crash protection has been bolstered in the 1994 model, and more structural supports have been placed under the dashboard to better control the force of destructive energy in a front-end crash. The new Jetta is bigger and prettier than the old boxier-than-thou models (dating to 1980), with more volume in the front cabin, more front headroom and more rear legroom. The Jetta III comes three ways: base GL, the tested upscale GLS and the hot-rod GLX. Both the GL and GLS are equipped with standard two-liter, in-line four-cylinder engines rated 115 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Maximum torque is 122 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm. The GLX comes with Volkswagen's now-famous VR6 engine, rated 172 horsepower at 5,800 rpm with a maximum torque of 177 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in all three models. A four-speed automatic is optional. Power front discs/rear drums serve as standard brakes on the GL and GLS. Anti-locks are optional on those models. Power four-wheel-disc, anti-lock brakes are standard on the GLX. Complaints: Wheezy high-altitude performance was the biggest irritation. Also, there was no glove box in the model I drove. Other makers have been able to put in a passenger air bag without removing the gl ove box. Praise: The front-wheel-drive, five-passenger Jetta III GLS is an overall excellent automobile -- strong, competent, practical, reliable and generally well-designed. Head-turning quotient: An attractive work of rounded edges, Teutonic dignity without the arrogance. Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces in the lowlands; acceleration demerits in the highlands. Braking was very good. The test car had standard five-speed manual transmission and optional anti-lock brakes. Mileage: About 27 miles per gallon (14.5-gallon tank, estimated 379-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running mostly highway and Skyline Drive. Sound system: Volkswagen "Premium" system of eight-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Very good. Price: Base price on the Jetta III GLS is $15,700. Dealer invoice on the base model is $14,251. Price as tested is $17,440, including $775 for anti-lock brakes, $575 for a power sunroof and a $390 dest nation charge. Purse-strings note: A highly likable compact car surrounded by numerous competitors, such as the Oldsmobile Achieva, Mitsubishi Galant, Chrysler Stratus and Cirrus, Ford Contour and Mystique, the Toyota Camry.
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