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Forty Years a Golf

by on Apr.01, 2014, under Auto Review Specs

The Volkswagen Golf wasn`t the first subcompact hatchback on the market, but it has been the best selling European car of all time. And it`s the one small hatch that did the most to help the segment shed the odour of cheapness and frugality. Forty years ago, the Golf was launched as a replacement for the omni-present classic Volkswagen Beetle.


30 Million GolfGolf MkI (from 1974)

Styled by Giorgio Giugiaro in a contemporary, angular fashion, the Golf MkI hit the mark from the beginning. But it truly took off with the addition of a diesel engine-arguably the first diesel that was fun to drive-and the GTI, which gave the Golf a somewhat upscale, more fun-to-drive image.


In the U.S. market, VW launched the Golf MkI as the Rabbit and began assembling it in 1978 in a former Chrysler plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. The U.S. version increasingly deviated from the German original with the introduction of a different grille and rectangular headlight, as well as a padded dashboard and somewhat bland colour combinations. In fact, it began to resemble a car that had copied the original Golf Mk I, the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon twins.


Fortunately, there was the GTI-fantastically quick and fun to drive with 110, later 112 horsepower in Germany-and still a blast in U.S. tune with its 90-hp, 1.8-liter four. And the cabriolet version-sometimes known as the `bitch basket`-carried on well into the 1990s. Our favourite MkI, however, comes from South Africa: The CitiGolf was built in Uitenhage until 2009 and its R derivative, of which only 375 were built, was rated at 122 horsepower and capable of reaching 122 mph. Hand-wringing critics had long criticized VW for keeping such an `unsafe` and `outdated` vehicle on the market, but it was tough to find a car back then that was more fun in the city.

The first Golf was tough to replace, and it was perhaps not the best idea to leave the task to VW`s own styling department under Herbert Schafer. VW toyed with futuristic proposals, one of which was used on the government-sponsored 1981 `Auto 2000″ prototype, but in the end settled for an evolutionary style, highlighted by a fat C-pillar. For the U.S. market, the Golf Mk II was produced in Westmoreland until the plant closed its doors in 1988.

Technologically, the Golf MkII brought about some significant advances, such as all-wheel drive and a 16-valve engine for the GTI. Europe got a garish, upmarket `Carat` trim level. And there were two versions with the infamous G-Lader scroll-type supercharger: The Rallye Golf, with Delta Integrale-inspired big cheeks, and the GTI G60. No convertible version was built.


Golf MkIII [from 1991]

In the third generation, the Golf`s styling emancipated itself entirely from the MkI and MkII, for better or worse. The characteristic round headlights made way for oval shaped ones, and a pronounced shoulder gave the Golf a substantial look. A station wagon version was added.

Great things happened under the skin: The Golf TDI was launched with a direct-injected turbo-diesel, which gave the car tremendous low-end punch. And VW offered a VR-6 engine with 174 horsepower later, 192 horsepower became available]. The Golf MkIII also came as a cabriolet and a few hundred electric versions were built for a singularly unreceptive market.

This one wore the handwriting of Ferdinand Piech and chief designer Hartmut Warkus. The extremely small body gaps emphasised the perception of quality. In the cabin, the new Golf featured upscale materials and blue instrumentation. Most designers agree that the design of the MkIV is among the most iconic of Golfs, right up there with the MkI.

Sadly, the GTI lost a lot of its special-ness and was relegated to the status of a mere trim level. The MkIV Golf became available with a number of interesting engines, including a 1.8-liter, 20-valve turbo, and a VR-5. Also, a more powerful VR-6, launched in the new R32, was mated with a new six-speed, wet-dual-clutch automatic, and a transmission that has since become a game changer. Meanwhile, the Golf MkIII cabriolet was tweaked to resemble a MkIV, but it remained the old car under the skin.


Golf MkIV (from 2003)

The MkV Golf, curiously marketed as the Rabbit once again in the U.S., was the baby of Marc Lichte, now chief designer at Audi. Generally regarded as a less successful car stylistically, its chief merit was restoring the GTI to its well-deserved status as a distinct and special addition to the line-up. The R32, with its powerful VR-6 and all-wheel drive, carried on. VW began offering the 1.4 TSI Twincharger engine, which combined a supercharger and a turbocharger. And the high-roof Golf Plus was added.

The cabriolet, on the other hand, was killed off to make room for the Eos. VW did not keep the MkV on the market as long as intended-a major face lift was required to update its design, which became the MkVI.




Golf Mk VI [from 2008]

Launched in Iceland in the summer of 2008, the Golf MkVI is perhaps the most successful face lift ever. The styling department cleaned up the exterior considerably, and the boxy dashboard made way for a far more elegant cockpit. But the station wagon-sold in the U.S. as the Jetta SportWagen-fully betrayed the new car`s MkV roots: Its somewhat ungainly rear end is identical to its predecessor.

In the name of efficiency, VW killed the VR-6, but the Golf R with its 300-hp, 2.0-liter TSI made up for it. And the cabriolet made a return.

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