It’s hard to believe that Volkswagen has built seven generations of Golf since the first one arrived on American shores in 1974. It was called the Rabbit here back then and its mission was nothing less vital than to replace VW’s long-running Beetle, which took the company from nothing -- rising from the ashes of WWII Germany, with an assist from the Marshall Plan -- to international powerhouse status, with over 570,000 U.S. sales in 1970 alone.
Eschewing the classic machine’s humpbacked lines for the crisp, angular modernism of famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, that first generation Golf also disposed of the Beetle’s signature rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and rear-wheel-drive, in favor of what’s turned out to be the default first choice of volume car builders everywhere – front-wheel-drive plus water-cooled engines. Though not without its teething troubles, Golf No.1 was a home run and deservedly so.
Time flies, and it was only just the other week when VW was taking us to San Francisco and the nearby East Bay to drive the new for 2015 Golf GTi, Mark 7. That is, technically the launch event was in honor of the new, seventh-generation GTi, the sporty take on the Golf that first broke cover in the European Mark I series in 1976. Also along for the ride to make those of us who remember the Mark 1 feel old was the rest of a whole new Golf line. In what you might call a soft launch strategy meant to extend the excitement through the year, several other seventh-gen Golf models were also on hand, but we’re not really supposed to talk about them. To keep the media hits coming, they won’t be officially released until later this year and next. As a special bonus that we can talk about, also available to drive were one example of each of six previous generations of GTi.
The staggered launch of new Golf variants, VW explained, reflects an increased emphasis on Golf as an engine of the company’s growth in America, which has stumbled of late. Golf sales will double, the hope is – to 60,000 – and that includes the new Golf SportWagen we saw. You knew it previously as the Jetta SportWagen, but soon, there will be no Jetta wagon. It’ll be a Golf.
Still, 60,000 seems a humble number when you remember that VW is pledged to selling 800,000 cars in America by 2018 as part of its overall world domination plan. So the Golf really isn’t expected to make much more than a dent, disappointingly. The company used to say that Americanos favored the best-selling Jetta -- a Golf with a trunk—over the hatch-backed original, a best-seller in the rest of the world, because they wanted trunks for some unspecified, nation-specific psychological reason. But one might also intuit that VW wanted to sell Jettas to Americans more than Golfs because Golfs came from high-cost Germany, while Jettas, built in Puebla, Mexico, came from a place where labor was practically free. Making the prophesy that much more self-fulfilling, VW’s consumer finance rates have strongly favored Jetta sales and leases over Golfs for parts of four decades. But beginning with this GTi, they’re building Golfs in Mexico, which indicates something.
The new GTi is excellent, if not quite as sharp and engaging to drive as the outgoing model. On the other hand, we think we’d recommend it over the new, more expensive Audi A3. The cars share an exceeding lot, being early examplars of VW’s ambitious new MQB architecture, which is meant to underpin dozens of new models, millions of externally dissimilar, but mechanically identical new VWs that will save the company time and money. Ah, money. Extra standardization may not necessarily be working to make cars more varied and exciting, but it is hard to argue with the general level of performance for dollar VW offers.
One of the Golfs coming our way, the e-Golf due this Fall, is an all-electric, battery-powered model, and somehow on test day it amused us even more than the ordinary Golfs, which it must be said were not unamusing. The garden variety Golfs will benefit from being significantly cheaper (at long-last a value-priced Golf diesel, starting at less than $22,000) and better, in many eyes admittedly not our own, for being bigger.
The e-Golf is expected to cost around $30,000 before incentives, which isn’t bad, either, but with a range for which Volkswagen makes no extraordinary claims -- around 75 miles, though rechargeable to 80% capacity in half an hour with a proper charging installation (as opposed to just plugging it into the wall) – for many, e-Golf’s utility won’t seem the same as a gas or hybrid car. On the bright side, if an electric car works for you, this electric Golf seems like a very nice one. Also, the e-Golf seems fast.
As fate would have it, we found ourselves following an e-Golf, while sampling the original GTi, an original 1984 Mark1 model, used but not spent, with a four-speed and a sport exhaust. The e-Golf’s speed is governed to 87mph and 0-60 comes up in 10.7 seconds, but even driven flat out stop sign to stop sign in a quiet industrial area of Richmond, CA, the gas-powered Mark 1 just couldn’t keep up. It was a surreal experience and even after reversing the procedure and driving the e-Golf while someone followed me, I can’t say that Mark 1 piece of Golf history Volkswagen brought along didn’t charm me just a little bit. But the significance of the moment, which illustrated just how far electric cars have come, didn’t escape me, either.