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
23 thoughts on “Teeing Up Against the Golf”
The Focus is the big loser here. The third generation lost the impetus of 40 years’ success in the sector. I don’t see the Golf going anywhere other than swapping ICE for electricity at some point.
Agreed richard. The current Focus is a disaster in terms of interior packaging. Ford traded interior space and utility for a more sporty design. That’s suicide in the family car sector.
If only the result was even remotely aesthetically pleasing! The Focus 3 is a proper dog’s dinner of a car and makes both the Astra and the Golf look like bonafide masterpieces.
Kris: that undersells the Golf and Astra quite a bit. Both are good chunks of industrial design. The Focus is not obviously wrong but its busy-ness is distracting. It has no clear personality for all its “kinetic design” creases and curves.
You’re right, Richard, I’m being unfair to the Opel and the VW. I’m actually rather fond of the Golf VII, so please don’t get me wrong – these are both highly competently styled cars, not just in comparison to the Focus or A-class.
The Focus III is like a meal with far too many artificial flavours added. Its aim is to really catch one’s attention due to the explosive amount of visual tricks it’s employing. But in the end, it just leaves an unpleasant taste. And not just because of the hatchback’s shameful rearlights and fuel filler lid.
VW of Oakland (California) has 26 eGolfs on their lot to choose from.
I did a little Uber driving last summer first in a 2016 Corolla and then a 2016 Focus. The difference in interior room between the two cars was drastic. The Focus was certainly the more enjoyable car to drive empty but put two adults in the back of that Focus and I was quietly pining for the Corolla.
You need to factor the Leon and A3 into Golf sales too, as these are different versions of the same basic vehicle.
The Golf wins because it is brilliant. One of the best considered products of our times. Its consistent excellence means that competitors have been forced to raise their game too, which is good for anyone shopping in this sector, as there is a broad choice of good cars.
This wasn’t intended to be, nor should be read as a critique on the Golf, which is an almost perfectly realised consumer durable. It’s the default choice for millions of happy customers who will blithely replace it with another. However its dominant position means that from its lofty perch, the only likely direction now is downwards. Both Daimler and BMW – (and to a lesser extent, Volvo) are redoubling their efforts to gain more of the Golf’s market share and as they remove the last distinguishing features from their offerings, they also remove impediments to purchase. With an A-Class being made available at broadly similar PCP rates to that of its VW equivalent, an increasing number of customers are likely to go for the more upmarket badge, all other things being equal.
In addition, the Golf is tarred (unfairly of course, but there you are) with an dull image, something the more ’emotional’, more ‘dynamic’ and more ‘upmarket’ Merc and Bimmer avoid, despite being at least as normative – even more so once the next-gen models launch. The Golf will remain a major force to be sure, but I can see its share of the market shrink as the two German rivals gain traction. (I’m excluding Audi from this assessment for obvious reasons).
Jacomo: yes, true. There are no bad cars in the class. The Ford’s demerits are nugatory in absolute terms. The products also happen to be incredibly similar. That said there are a lot of Golf owners who would enjoy a Mazda3, Focus, Astra or Nissan (I’ve forgotten the name) more but who never even tested them.
Eoin: the Golf has been such a success that the competitors have given up being different. That’s boring for customers.
VW’s competitors have jettisoned any point of difference in an ill-served attempt to attract Golf customers. Golf customers who routinely and repeatedly buy Golfs. While there is a strong argument to be made that Golf customers don’t want to be surprised – and VW make sure they never are, it makes some commercial sense to follow a similar template if you can command a similar (or better) price premium. However, surely it’s commercial suicide for the likes of PSA/Renault/Ford et al. Just turning up costs them money. Even something as closely related to the Golf like a Seat Leon can’t command the same margins new or the same resale used. They are caught in a catch 22: terrified to break out of the class norms for fear of failure, yet doomed to failure for cleaving to those same norms.
The basic fact is that the Golf does being a Golf better than anyone else. A Megane, a 308, an Auris, a Focus or an i30 all offer broadly similar packages, driving experiences, equipment levels and versatility. They’re probably roughly there or thereabouts on resale value as well. The Golf might look better parked outside your house from a social mobility perspective – all other stylistic viewpoints being subjective. Given what they’re offering, none of these manufacturers can now hope to knock the VW off its top spot, or indeed significantly dent its share of the market. However, my contention is that a more determined Daimler and BMW probably can – and probably over the fullness of time will.
I am not moved by badge appeal or perceived status. This is why I find the Mercedes A class both depressing and baffling – once a genuinely different choice, it has now become a poor clone of a Golf – yet it sells much better nowadays.
One of the reasons for the Golf’s success is that it is classless. This is a cliche but is based on truth… millionaires buy Golfs, just like the rest of us. It is perceived as a smart buy.
Jacomo: I agree. The rise of this generation of A-Class is one of the most dispiriting automotive developments in recent years. It is an utterly cynical product. I struggle to find the necessary derogative here – it’s blindingly banal.
The Golf is the ACME, but like all dominant entities, its success could prove to be its undoing.
I missed the difference between the lamps until I looked for a seventh time. That was not a difference worth making. The Focus and the Citroen C4 are oddly alike: busy but bland looking. I can´t wait to see what Ford do next with the Focus. Will they get even busier or dial it all back to something less complex? This series has been underwhelming and then when you think how much good will the first one generated this iteration is extra disappointing.
By some margin the worst part of the current Focus is how they had to leave the contrived fuel flap as it was even though they significantly reduced the size of the rear lights! So now nothing lines up and it just looks stupid.
Which then became:
But back to the Golf. The Golf looks classy in any version. And even more so when you get to GTI and R levels. No one thinks weirdly of spending £32,000 on either of those. But £32,000 on a Civic Type-R? A Focus ST? You must be joking! Neither look like over 30k cars whereas a Golf always look the money inside and out..
The lamps seem large enough. The shape is another matter.
I hadn’t even realised they’d changed the size of the rear lamps. Whenever I see any Focus 3, I try and look the other way.
Regarding Focus 3, this is a case where I’m glad that the Swiss buy so many estates.
The success and appeal of the Golf is its spread of abilities and functions. I reckon that, in planning the development of each generation, the VW project team defines what 10/10 will look like for mid-sized hatches on all the dimensions that matter – performance, economy/ emissions, space/ convenience, handling, ride, infotainment, etc. and plots precisely where it wants it to be on every measure, with nothing lower than an 8, some 9s and maybe a 10 for whatever is the zeitgeist of the period. That way, it becomes the immovable standard for everything else.
The Golf development programme has more brainpower than NASA and the CIA. I bet every competitor is documented on a spreadsheet as large as a runway and the Golf placed on it as you say, at the top of every trending parameter. That isn’t what it takes to make a charming car though.
A lot of Focus bashing going on – deserved in terms of interior space. However, I have just made the outrageous suggestion on my blog that, in the right colour and which your eyes screwed up a bit, the front end looks a tad like an Aston Martin (drove a few of them last week – also featured on carswithasideofcouscous). Would still rather have a Golf though.
That’s not enough to save it in my books. The others in the class look clearly like themselves – even the Auris is a distinctive car. The Focus is far from bad, the slightly best driver’s car they say. However, as a shape it’s disappointing. Megane, Golf, Astra, 3 and Auris and even the Nissan thingy all appeal more.
I know, the suggestion was made firmly with my tongue in cheek. As well as the Golf, I have driven the Astra, Megane and Auris recently. The Astra is particularly impressive (1.6 diesel and 1.0T petrol) and smart inside and out. Auris and Megane only so-so in my book.
I was trying to be even-handed about the Megane. They did a nice job with the rear lamps. The HVAC controls are probably not so good. The Auris is now available with some very elegant paints and the interior has improved a lot. VW’s customers either don’t want nicer colours or VW refuses to offer them.