As the sector champion shows faint signs of faltering, are ‘prestige’ rivals set to take advantage? We investigate.
For years now, the Volkswagen Golf has been the rocky outcrop its European c-segment rivals have dashed themselves against; largely I might add, to their detriment. The VW hasn’t so much carved a niche, as cut vast swathes through the sector, leaving many observers wondering what anyone can do to provide a counter-narrative.
With mainstream rivals offering only slavish cover-versions of a better-liked and thoroughly embedded original, the question is begged: why bother? For a time at least, only so-called premium makes offered something at least conceptually different. Mercedes-Benz’s original A-Class being more minivan than hatch and BMW’s 1-Series offering a unique for segment proposition of rear-wheel drive with all the benefits and packaging drawbacks that entailed. Neither approach achieved the requisite cut-through with a buying public who have no real interest in technicalities they can’t at least interact with.
Conformity sells. Conformity that is, with a snob-value German nameplate, which has entailed a gradual distillation of both marque’s c-sector offer. Why be different when VW do so well by offering their customers no surprises? But for the first time in almost a decade, the Golf’s dominance has been shaken, posting an 18% drop in March 2017 sales. Temporary blip you might say, (and I might even agree), but there has been heretical whispers that VW’s recent revisions to the Golf line – (fatuously claimed by Wolfsburg to be an all-new model) – are not generating the expected uplift.
Let’s not forget of course that the entire sector is under attack from the creeping crossover infestation, not least of which are offerings from VW’s own stable. VW’s Tiguan alone posted first quarter 2017 sales of 65,660 – (up 78.4%). But with total European sales last year of 491,681, it might equally be argued the Golf has volume to give away – especially if it’s to another VW branded product.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have barely touched the hem of the mighty Wolfsburg monolith since their respective introductions. Last year, 132,287 1-Series’ found grateful owners, while 141,800 A-Class customers creased-up their drives. On the face of things, these figures have not been troubling VW all that much. Q1 2017 sales for each are as follows: Golf – 115,179 (down 11.3%), 1-Series – 36,108 (up 16.2%), and Mercedes A-Class – 36,408 (up 3.3%).
Clearly for both Vierzylinder and the Untertürkheim starship, these numbers are not buttering sufficient turnips and with the Golf showing early signs of weakness, the next generation of compact models from both marques appear set to grab the ‘Veedub’ by the… well, by the balls I suppose you’d have to say.
Of course, the Golf is under attack from the mainstream as well and despite the blank conformity of its rivals, a dent is nevertheless made. Foremost of VW’s rivals is currently Opel, the able and well-liked Astra showing strongly with Q1 sales of 70,123 (up 14.9%), giving the fading Focus a decent kick in the teeth in the process – 64,053 (up 6.6% since you failed to ask). With most of the segment either new or recently refreshed, the rate of attrition against the Golf from the mainstream is probably as severe as it’s going to get for now.
No, the likely threat comes from the Star and Propeller – (with Volvo as a potential dark horse contender). The forthcoming 2018 1-Series switches to the front-drive UKL platform shared with MINI, removing any packaging issues which hitherto prevented buyers from shopping at their BMW retailer, while Mercedes, flushed with the current car’s success is readying a larger, de-creased A–Class with Sensual Purity® dripping from every panel. Make no mistake – this time they’re serious.
The Golf is a thoroughly mature product, honed to near perfection for the needs of the market – even if as we’ve seen on these pages, it’s not exactly everyone’s idea of automotive nirvana. It has however, enjoyed a near unbroken run of dominance and while it would be foolish indeed to suggest a reckoning is in the offing, its position is coming under increasing threat from a multi-pronged assault comprising of ‘mainstream’ c-sector rivals, ‘premium’ makes, crossovers and ultimately of course, electric.
One thing is clear however, even if Mercedes, BMW and to a lesser extent, Volvo come to dominate the segment over the coming years – (as seems likely), the Golf will continue with us in some form. It will, like all great survivors, simply evolve into something else.
Sales data: carsalesbase.com