Perhaps the quintessential “world car” is the Volkswagen Beetle, something of a quirky 20th century phenomenon that seemed to resonate widely in disparate places. In the world of VW, the Beetle gave way in May 1974 to the Golf, which has become, according to VW, the “most successful European car of all time,” with, after 40 years, more than 30-million Golfs sold, eclipsing the Beetle. Whereas the rear-drive Beetle had an air-cooled, horizontally opposed engine in the rear of the vehicle, when the Golf arrived, it featured a water-cooled, inline engine transversely located upfront, driving the front wheels.
Although the Beetle was undoubtedly a hard act to follow, clearly the Golf did what it was intended to do.
Speaking of the Beetle-Golf, Klaus Bischoff, VW’s present chief designer, said, “The step from Beetle to Golf was truly revolutionary. Creatively, the Volkswagen designers changed from a round to an angular form, thanks to Giorgio Giugiaro’s legendary design. The main design elements of the Golf I, such as the silhouette of the upright, massive C-pillar, the prominent wheel arches, and the horizontal front with a slim grille and downwardly protruding headlights are in every Golf to the present day.”
The Golf was initially known as the Rabbit in the U.S., when it went on sale in December 1974. Volkswagen actually operated an assembly plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, to build the Rabbit; the plant launched in 1978. Not only did the car have a different name, but whereas the headlamps of the car built in Wolfsburg had round headlights, those from Westmoreland were square; the Rabbit also had larger taillights, color-matched interiors, and, less surprising, a softer suspension.
The Westmoreland plant built Rabbits through model year 1988. That means that it produced gen I and gen II cars. After the plant was shuttered, Golf production for the U.S. was split between Germany and Puebla, Mexico.
With the 2015 Golf, Golf VII, the units for North America are being built in the Puebla plant. VW invested some $700-million in the plant for the Golf. Puebla started building Beetles in 1967, and continues to produce the coupe and cabriolet versions of that car. In addition, the Jetta is produced there. The VW plant in Silao is the source of the TSI engines used for the Golf.
There is an interesting aspect of the timeline of the Golf over the last 40 years. There isn’t a chronological correlation between the vehicles in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. So, for example, the Golf VII, new to the U.S. in 2014, was already made available elsewhere in 2013. This is arguably an advantage for the production of the car in Puebla, given that there is already substantial knowledge about the build acquired in Wolfsburg. This is especially important in that the Golf VII is based on VW’s recently developed Modular Transverse Matrix (MQB) architecture, so with a new car, new plant, and a new platform, it is undoubtedly a good thing to minimize the unknowns to assure a high-quality build.
One interesting aspect of the new Golf is that it is longer (up 2.1 in. to 167.5 in.) and wider (up 0.5 in. to 70.5 in. for the two-door and 70.8 in. for the four), which means there is a bigger interior package (93.5-ft3 vs. 92.9-ft3 for the previous generation), but the mass of the car is significantly less. Depending on the model and options, the car can be as much as 79 lb. lighter than its comparable predecessor.
A notable contributor to the mass reduction is a more extensive use of high- and ultra-high strength steels. The body and chassis are composed of 28% of these materials, compared to 6% in the previous generation Golf. (Some of the steels didn’t exist when the last Golf was engineered.)
In addition to which, VW uses tailor rolling for some of the parts, which allows the gauge of the material to be varied as required by its performance needs; up to 11 thickness zones are used for some components.
Overall, the body-in-white is 51 lb. lighter than the previous car (this is part of the 79 lb.), yet it is 10% more torsionally rigid.
Inside, the car’s controls are designed to be more “driver centric,” which essentially means that there is a repositioning of the center console such that the center stack is angled more to face the driver than straight back. In keeping with technological advances, there is a standard 5.8-in. capacitive touch screen (rather than the resistive type, which actually requires a physical touch), which allows gestural control of items on the screen.
From a design point of view, the Golf takes cues from two of its predecessors, the Mark I (1974), which was designed by Giorgio Giugiaro and Volkswagen Design, and the Mark IV (1997), which was designed under the direction of Hartmut Warkuß, then head of VW design. The characteristic C-pillar that the car has always had, and which was accentuated in the Mark IV, is an example of this historic acknowledgement. However, there is a new front end design for the car, as well as a more steeply sloped hood. One of the standard elements of the MQB architecture is the distance between the front wheel centerline and the pedal box. This puts the front wheels 1.7 in. further forward than they were in the previous generation, which results in the cab being moved back. The new Golf is 1.1 in. lower than the previous model (now 57.2 in.), so, with the additional width, not only does the car appear more planted, but there is an aerodynamic improvement, as well, with the car having a coefficient of drag of 0.29, compared with the previous generation’s 0.32.
Under the hood, there are gasoline and diesel options. There is a 1.8-liter, 170-hp four-cylinder, direct-injected, turbocharged gasoline engine. Although it has a cast-iron block (there is an aluminum head), the engine weighs just 290 lb., thanks to the use of thin-wall casting (0.12 in.), four crankshaft counter weights, small diameter main bearings, a polymer oil pan, and even aluminum alloy screws and fasteners.
The EA288 turbodiesel is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged and direct-injected engine that produces 150 hp @ 3,500 rpm and 236 lb-ft of torque @ 1,750 rpm.
The gasoline engine is available with a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. The diesel is available with a six-speed manual or a dual-clutch automatic.
A word about the GTI variant. GTIs have been available in the U.S. market since 1983. Arguably, it is the original “hot hatch.” The performance aspects of the car continues for the latest model, based primarily on the 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected engine that produces 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Realize that this car, with a two-door body style and a manual (six-speed) transmission weighs just 2,972 lb., so the power-to-weight ratio is notable. (The GTI is also available with a dual-clutch automatic.)
Another available feature for the GTI is an electronically controlled differential named “VAQ.” The VAQ works with the standard XDS+ cross differential system that monitors wheel sensors and automatically applies braking to the driven inside wheel as needed to reduce understeer in conditions where the suspension has become unloaded.
The VAQ similarly monitors the wheel sensors, but in its case, it makes required wheel speed adjustments between the front wheels. As much as 100% can be directed left or right, thereby eliminating both understeer and torque steer.
But let’s circle back to the popularity of the Golf. While it does exceedingly well globally, in the U.S. things aren’t going quite as robustly. According to Autodata, for all of 2013, there were 30,931 deliveries of the vehicle in the U.S. market. By way of comparison, in December 2013, there were 29,000 Honda Civics delivered.
With the new production base in Mexico, which provides more competitive pricing of the car (e.g., the “Launch Edition” starts at $17,995), presumably Volkswagen of America will gain some traction for the model in the U.S. market.