Originally Published December 3, 2018
VW’s most famous car, obviously, is the Beetle. But the VW that produced that car was very different from the one we know today. Today VW is the world’s third largest automaker, behind Toyota and the Renault-Nissan alliance, and ahead of that old giant General Motors. Here are all the brands VW currently owns:
But, it was the Golf, not the Bug, which is their bread and butter and has been Europe’s best selling car for decades, that made all this possible.
I don’t need to introduce the Beetle, as I’ve already done a diary on its rise, but now we must talk about its unfortunate fall. By the end of the 60s, VW had become much too dependent on the Bug. While it was cute, it was a 30 year old design and in West Germany was losing out to more modern competitors such as the Opel Kadett. In 1972, Opel overtook VW in sales. Even in the US, where the Beetle had absolutely dominated the small car market, it was losing out to new domestic subcompacts such as the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, and AMC Gremlin, as well as Datsuns and Toyotas.
It’s not to say that VW was just twiddling its thumbs, they experimented with an endless number of Beetle replacements. The most interesting was the EA266. It had a flat watercooled engine mounted under the rear seats. It was mid-engined. It would’ve been pretty novel, but it was rejected for being too complex and expensive to produce.
There was hope however. VW realized it owned Auto Union and NSU, two companies with plenty of experience with front wheel drive and water-cooled designs. In 1972, they were merged into Audi, the preferred car of tailgaters.
The Passat (sold in America as the Dasher), essentially a rebadged Audi 80, was not VW’s first front drive water cooled car, that honor goes to the NSU-designed K70. But it was the first to achieve success. And its crisp Giugiaro designed lines provided the perfect blueprint for a smaller car to replace the Beetle. As it happens, Audi was working on a small car called the 50. Just rebadge it, make it larger and voila! a perfect Beetle replacement. And it was just in the nick of time, VW was headed for bankruptcy and many were wondering they were just a one-hit wonder company.
The Golf (named after the German word for the Gulf stream current, not the sport) went on sale in 1974 and was an immediate hit. It was good looking, fun to drive, and fuel efficient. VW’s future was no longer in doubt. The Golf was the opposite of the Beetle in every way, it had a water cooled engine up front driving the front wheels, and as opposed to the Bug’s 1930s curves, the Golf looked like it was designed with a straight edge.
The creme of the Golf crop was the GTI, introduced in 1976. It had a 110 hp engine and a 4 speed close ratio transmission that could get it to 60 in 9.2 seconds, not impressive today, but blistering back then. The GTI was similar in concept to the original Ford Mustang, you take an ordinary family car and drop in a more powerful engine. And just like the Mustang, the GTI created its own segment, the hot hatch.
The US market was an extremely important one for VW and it was hoped the Golf (sold as the Rabbit) could rekindle the Beetle’s success. Sadly, it did not. Part of it was the deteriorating of the dollar-deutschemark exchange rate which forced VW to go all GM beancounter to keep the price competitive. In 1979, they even built their own factory in Pennsylvania, but they couldn’t match up to Japanese quality. The Westmoreland factory was shut down in 1988.
The Mk2 Golf was introduced in 1983. Despite looking similar to the old one, it was very different. It was much bigger, 7 inches longer 2 inches wider, and 260 lbs heavier to be exact. It was also much more aerodynamic. The GTI could now be had with a 16 valve engine producing 135 hp. The Golf continued to be a success, except in the US where their market share kept sliding.
European automakers were a lot less punctual about redesigning their cars than their American and Japanese counterparts. The Mk2 Golf lasted until 1991 when it was replaced by the Mk3. This version would establish the design cues that have carried on for 27 years, namely the teardrop headlights no longer integrated into the grille.. It would be the first Golf to offer airbags and antilock brakes. The coolest feature was an optional sporty V6 engine.
VW reached its US sales nadir in 1993. They were down to just .5% of the US market, an order of magnitude smaller than in 1970. As other European automakers, including Fiat, Renault, and Peugeot had withdrawn, VW was strongly considering doing likewise. But then, a miracle. The Jetta, essentially a sedan version of the Golf, turned into a huge sales hit. VW stayed in the American market.
The Mk4 Golf was introduced in 1997. It used more rounded ovoid styling and looked kind of bloated to be honest. But it kept selling in huge numbers, despite strong competitors such as the Ford Focus. VW was moving itself upmarket as it repositioned Skoda and SEAT to be their low priced brands. The Golf got a very nice interior for a car in its class.
The hottest Golf was the R32. It had a 3.2 liter V6 engine and all wheel drive. It was a limited edition model which has barely depreciated in value.
In 2003, the Mk5 Golf came along. Americans however were stuck with the old Golf until 2008. VW decided to revive the Rabbit name for the US market. This version is quite dear to my heart as I drive a 2009 Rabbit which my parents bought used in 2014. It has not been trouble-free, as I’ve had doors jam or fail to lock, misfiring spark plugs, an oil leak, and suspension troubles. I prefer to believe that was the fault of the previous owner, and not VW build quality. It has been with me through 4 flat tires and my rear ending of a Nissan Sentra. And despite being a lowly economy car, it has heated seats that could fry an egg, a 6 disc CD changer, and a peppy 5 cylinder engine with a 6 speed automatic transmission, which was pretty advanced in 2009.
But enough about me. Back to the Golf, it looked less like a bathtub than the previous model. The GTI now had a turbocharged 2 liter engine making 200 horsepower. European models offered a “twincharger” engine that was both turbocharged and supercharged to eliminate turbo lag. Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson colorfully said it was “about as smooth as falling down a flight of stairs wearing leg calipers”. The most insane one was the W12 concept. They shoehorned in a 12 cylinder engine to where the backseats are supposed to be. Thankfully, this monstrosity never got sold to the public.
The Mk6 arrived in 2009 for Europe and 2010 for America. It’s hard to call it a redesign given how much similarities there were to the old one. In the US, the name reverted back to Golf and offered the infamous diesel engine. All Golfs, besides the only-for-America 2.5 liter I5, offered VW’s twin clutch DSG transmission as opposed to a traditional automatic. The DSG can shift extremely quickly and combines the efficiency of a manual with the convenience of an automatic. The R32 was replaced by the R20. Instead of the V6, it had a turbocharged 4 cylinder making 270 horsepower. For the first time, all Golfs came standard with air conditioning and even offered dual zones. They also had stability control and 7 airbags. In addition to the GTI, there was now a diesel powered GTD.
The MK7 arrived in 2013 and its design was once again an evolution, not revolution. It offers an amazing array of technology that would’ve been science fiction just a few years ago. You can get adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, blindspot detection, and even an automatic parking system. The R model stayed on, now uprated to 300 horsepower. In addition to the GTI and GTD, there was now the GTE, a plug in hybrid with 204 horsepower from its 4 cylinder engine and electric motor combined. It can go 31 miles on electric only range while remaining a true pocket rocket.
The Golf came along during desperate times for VW and, in Europe at least, it managed to reproduce the success of the Beetle. To the millions of happy owners, such as me, it has been a practical and robust small car with a premium feel that sets it apart. Nobody in 1970 would consider the possibility that VW would one day build more cars than General Motors, but the Golf has made it possible. It should continue to dominate for years to come.