Car is a Four Letter Word

The fourth generation of the series proved to be the quintessence of Golf. Twenty years later, it still is.

1997 Volkswagen Golf Mark IV. Image: 3dtuning

In 1974, a teetering VW took a risky punt into the relative unknown by launching a car, which by no means avant garde, (even by the standards of the day), was nonetheless some way left of centre. While it would be facile to suggest it was anything but a commercial success, it wasn’t perhaps until its second permutation that it began to truly dominate the sector it would ultimately define.

Like most overnight successes the Golf’s rise to prominence masks innumerable false avenues and bitter reversals along the way, but today, its ubiquity makes for a slightly opaque subject to pin and mount. After all, the Golf is a such an entity in itself, what is there to say? But over a forty-three year lifespan, seven distinct series’ and roughly 30 million examples built, there are Golfs and there are Golfs. Most commentators can agree that Italdesign’s original is rightly the most significant, but perhaps the most significant in cementing its status as an object of desire was its fourth iteration, first introduced in 1997.

The master and his magnum opus. Image: Hemmings

From a stylistic perspective, 1974’s Ur-Golf was all about hard edges, an athletic stance, superb proportions and the marrying of an Italian rationalism with a cool, Germanic precision. Its 1983 successor applied quantities of compressed air to Giugiaro’s themes, resulting in a somewhat bloated facsimile, albeit one which proved enormously successful both commercially and reputationally.

The difficult third generation adopted the softer form language of the early ’90s, lending the now familiar silhouette a rather melted blancmange aesthetic – one it seems that was replicated by the model’s reputation both for driving dynamics and overall quality. VW doesn’t much like to talk about Golf III.

With VW’s rivals nipping the sector leader’s heels, Golf IV had to offer more than just another iterative step. Hartmut Warkuss succeeded Herbert Schäfer as Styling Director, and was faced with one of the toughest briefs in the business. Where now? VW Group Chairman, Ferdinand Piëch is said to have offered Warkuss the benefit of his advice to the effect that the design team could do as they wished with the styling any other VW model, but the Golf was sacrosanct. Radical therefore was out.

Image: autoevolution

In 2010, Warkuss outlined the basis of his inspiration for Golf IV to imprint, Car Body Design. “I asked myself at the time how Giorgio Giugiaro would design it… and so we created a timeless form again and intensified the character of the Golf through the distinctive C-pillars, among other things.” Indeed, Peter Schreyer’s chosen styling scheme could almost be described as homage, so much did it honour the Giugiaro original.

But while ur-Golf was dainty, angular and upright, Schrayer’s Golf Four was all gently radiused surfaces, scalpel thin, painstakingly disciplined shutlines, the removal of visual fat and the minimum of decoration. Larger in most dimensions to its predecessors, with carefully managed overhangs, a foursquare stance and pared back visuals, Golf IV was and remains a masterclass. Because despite being perhaps the Golfiest Golf yet, it signified total reinvention: Golf as design object.

Image: thetruthaboutcars

But wasn’t simply the exterior styling that stood out, the Mark IV’s interior set an entirely new standard for the segment – one that utterly floored VW’s rivals. From the soft touch plastics, the upmarket fabrics, the cool blue instrument backlighting to the damped everything, Golf IV presented a new interior quality benchmark, one that sent everyone else scrabbling back to their CAD screens.

Reaction to the car was lyrical. Even Giugiaro was wheeled out to pronounce upon it. He nodded in approval – what else could he say, after all? Millennial style arbiter Tyler Brûlé, in his design for living bible, pronounced Golf IV as the quintessential Wallpaper* car. It was official, Golf had fully transcended its ‘Volk’ origins.


Mechanically, it was all very much the usual finely presented liebfraumilch. Struts and a twist beam, a range of petrol engines spanning a 1.4 litre four through to a 2.8 litre narrow angle V6. A 2.3 litre VR5 was also among the technical felicities on offer. Golf IV also saw the wholesale adoption of the infamous TDI acronym. The 150 bhp Pumpe-Düse turbodiesel version offering an unbeatable combination of economy and for the time, staggering performance; a combination that perhaps did as much to advance the cause of DERV than any single model. Top of the range Golfs also came with four-wheel-drive and were priced accordingly.

Never the most dynamic of the C-segment, the Mark IV was eclipsed in this area by Peugeot’s frangible but fine handling/riding 306 and later by Ford’s kaleidoscope-shaking Focus; the latter perhaps the Golf IV’s sternest rival, offering as it did, a superior chassis, less perceived quality, but a more radical interior and exterior style in addition to the (misguided) sense that one was driving the future.


Golf IV enjoyed a relatively short run, replaced in 2003 by the chintzy Murat Günak-inspired Golf V, a car which returned to the slightly blobular aesthetics of the third generation and remains one of the nameplate’s more forgettable iterations. Its lifespan was to prove even shorter – (as indeed was Günak’s), with a Walter de Silva-led facelift arriving in 2008, which really ought to have been dubbed Golf V.2.0, which saw a lot of the Günak-era excesses stripped away.

De Silva was under few illusions as to what bushel to look under for guidance telling Car Body Design, “Basically, Giorgio Giugiaro and Hartmut Warkuß have written the score, a beautiful piece of music. And with my team, with Klaus Bischoff and naturally all the others, we try to give a proper interpretation of this music. The basic score of the ‛Golf music’ has been written. What we’re carrying forward here is a further development.” The current seventh generation harks unashamedly back to Golf IV, reconfirming its stature in the marque pantheon.

Image: favcars

For decades the unassailable sector leader, today’s Golf is under siege like never before, ironically from the VW group’s seemingly unstoppable Tiguan crossover. However, when the history books are written, the Mark IV is likely to be the variant that best encapsulates its reign. A totem for a car that transcended brand identity and troubled gestation to become a marque in itself. Global in appeal, ubiquitous, anonymous and probably as much car as anyone could possibly need. Universally known by a single four letter word: GOLF.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “Car is a Four Letter Word”

  1. I drove a Golf IV TDI quite a lot at the time. It was, indeed, revelation. A family hatchback with a luxury car interior that pulled like a train. Motorways would never be the same again, now that a humble Golf could out-haul a Mercedes from the slip road to the fast lane.

    Ironically, the GTI was the worst iteration of the lot and the VR6 was undone by quality woes – so the further up the range you went, the less convincing this luxurious Golf became.

    I think that, for the first time, you saw Audi’s influence on VW (rather than the other way around). The body colour door handles, padded interior surfaces and noise insulation were all upmarket influences.

    Of course, the Golf V was, objectively, a bigger leap forward and a much better car, with an all new body and proper independent rear suspension.

  2. Hmm. When I think of the Golf I think of the first version. Rabbit in the US. And I think of rust, rust and more rust; poor support; and VWish engines that pulled strongly at low rpms but quickly ran out of breath. The car destroyed most of the goodwill that the Beetle had earned and convinced me that the powers at VW were arrogant
    fools who thought they knew better than anyone else and were incapable of learning.

    Eóin, I appreciate your focus on design but design isn’t everything. Delivery matters too.

    1. As Richard pointed out, the European perspective is quite different from US customers’ experience – the Golf was/is considered the quality item of its class, sometimes more, sometimes less justifiedly so.

      For some reason, VAG never really ‘got’ the North American market and its customer base – wether produced at Westmoreland or Chattanooga, US VWs never really cut the mustard, missing the mark both in terms of quality and fitness for purpose.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed the Mk1 and Mk2 Golfs that I owned, and they were reliable and well protected against rust. I am, however, mystified by the continuation of that reputation through what is now 20 years of fragile, costly to own, and mediocre to drive models. I subscribe more to the US view of VW products than the UK one it seems!

    1. Dan and David: guessing that you are from N America, I will say that the EU Golfs are a different kettle of wax. The N American models are, I believe, Mexican made. And like the Canadian-made Volvos, not cut from the same cloth nor even cut the same way. No car’s fault-free; the EU Golf offers ready reliability and tickles the customers’ quality sensors so much that many people look at nothing else.
      I’d argue the Mk4 quality lay not only in the CAD geometry. VW stuffed Audi-type quality into a few carefully selected places and judged correctly that a €150-worth of damped this and cloth-covered that would stun the competition. Ford and GM do it the other way around and still haven’t learned. Every sale of a Focus and Astra costs two lost ones, nice as the cars are (they are decent products, overall).

  4. Herbert Schäfer once claimed in an interview that Giugiaro and himself were the only two people capable of designing a Golf. A couple of years later, Warkuß’/Schreyer’s IV generation came along. Oopsy daisy.

  5. I am intrigued by the discussions on Golf reliability and which was the “best”Golf. We have owned the three least desirable models; II, III and V. They were bought new and kept by us or our children for 12-15 years.

    After an Alfasud the Golf II seemed tank like and as a normally aspirated diesel without PAS this was not unreasonable. In its 15 years it needed two driveshafts, an exhaust, a clutch and a head gasket at 120,000 miles. That was probably rather than better than average for the time.

    The much reviled Golf III, which I believe Car labelled “Lemon” on the front cover, managed 15 years use with no replacements or repairs apart from brake shoes and a few light bulbs. It was running perfectly when traded in through the scrappage scheme in 2009. This despite being grossly abused by my daughter in Edinburgh; she didn’t realise that a red light on cornering might indicate dangerously low levels of oil.

    Finally the little admired Golf V was a revelation in both interior design and engine performance. The TDi diesel seemed to have an endless amount of torque from almost tick-over; it was hard to resist flooring the throttle for that incongruous leap forward.

    Of course no conclusions can be drawn from a sample of three but nature of these discussions is that we speak from our own experiences, good or bad. The strength of this site is that we listen to each others’ opinion. Finally does anyone else think that the black surround on the rear side window of the three door Golf IV looks rather heavy handed compared with the five door?

    1. Every generation of Golf has been a top seller in its class, I don’t think anybody disputes the technical prowess of the car being one of the best in its field. What we’re discussing here are nuances within that spectrum, and when compared to each other some of the generations are simply seen as being a notch above the others.

      That doesn’t mean that the other generations are inferior vehicles, they are still better than most of the competition. But talking about cars with a passion, to me some cars simply seem to lack the passion I need to put my effort into it. I don’t dispute the Golf III was a perfect running car, but to me it’s just a boring appliance that performed its job perfectly. And I just can’t do boring no matter how perfect it is, because perfection is boring.

      It’s the little idiosyncracies of life that makes it interesting for me to live, I need passion in my life even when it isn’t perfect or perhaps not even functioning at all. That’s why my dream car is a Citroen 2CV and not a Golf, but that’s how I roll. And for people needing reliable transportation I can defenitely see the need for a car like the Golf, doing its duty as appliance.

      And yes, I can see what you mean about the three door Golv IV. The surround does look heavy handed, but there’s also a problem with the entire flank being vague and unresolved. The five door is a better design, as it has a better four cornered stance, there’s dynamic in the rear door cutout for the wheel, and of course the piece de resistance, the overly designed C-pillar turned sail panel.

      The five doors is simply more interesting to look at and therefore more rewarding as a piece of design, while the three door looks like an afterthought. The lack of interesting detail makes the eye wander in search for something interesting to look at, and the focus ends up in the wrong places, the heavey handed detailing in this case.

  6. That interior is still a joy 20 years on. I don’t get tired of it.

    1. Not sure about the hubcaps. Were they fitted by VW and did he approve of them?

    2. The hubcaps have more than a faint whiff of ‘Heidedesign’ to them. I’d be surprised if it was GG that had come up with that particular design…

    3. I’m not so sure these are wheeltrims. I can’t be certain they were alloy wheels, but as far as I can recall, they were styled wheels, as against ‘hubcaps’ and were a cost-option on first (and I think second) series Golf’s, Scirocco’s and Passats.

      To come back to some of the earlier comments here, the early Golf’s did rust, but (on this side of the Atlantic at least), no worse than anything else and a good deal less than some. They also quickly gained unassailable reputation for build quality – one which lasts to this day.

      The Mark IV did suffer from a number of technical maladies in service, but a family member who worked at a VW dealership during the Mark IV’s reign told me they weren’t an especially troublesome car in general. Chassis-wise however, they were very ordinary. Refined and comfortable, but relatively charmless to drive, by sector benchmark standards I’m told. The Mark V, while better to drive and undoubtedly possessed of a fine interior was a real step backwards from an aesthetic point of view.

      This is a personal view – as indeed is the article, which is unashamedly design focused – but I believe VW never bettered the Golf IV in design terms, even if they have made better, more fully rounded Golf products since.

  7. I think the ‘hubcaps’ are the 13″ alloys used on the Audi 80 GT/GTE and Mk.1 Scirocco GLi.

    Occasionally seen on Golf and Jetta GL and GLSs.

    Nobody’s mentioned the inexcusably awful brakes on the Mk 1 and lower-order Mk 2 Golfs. Remembering too many anxious moments in the family Mk.1, I bought a Mk.2 GTI (discs all round, vented front) more for the way it stops than the way it goes.

    1. The braking issue wasn’t merely confined to Golf’s – other VAG products suffered similarly. My understanding was that it was due to the fact that the servo/master cylinder was placed on the nearside, which was fine on LHD versions, but required a convoluted mechanical linkage for RHD models. Additionally, some more basic early Golfs/Polos lacked a servo entirely.

    2. Indeed once Kris mentioned the Scirocco I remembered those wheels. Far from the prettiest, and I’ve never seen them on a Golf that I can recall.

  8. Mr Herriott. Sir. Must you perpetuate that old saw about Mexican-built Jettas and Golfs being worse than the German-built ones? That’s a load of navel-gazing Euro superiority nonsense. What, did Mexicans put bolts in the wrong ‘oles or something? And the Germans hanging around supervising them just turn a blind eye. What rubbish!

    Not many Golfs were sold here, most were Jettas for well over 25 years. Same car. The precious Special Editions, all VR6s, most of the GTIs were still made in Germany, and still bloody awful in the reliability stakes. I think you Europeans have a higher tolerance for pain or something – people here, when they spend money, expect a quality product. VW certainly didn’t deliver. Rotten Passats, junky Jettas. How do you think the Japanese slaughtered them in the marketplace? I mean, get real.

    Secondly, I’ve told you several times about Volvos being “built” here in my hometown, Halifax Nova Scotia. They were, every one, assembled from knock down kits supplied from Sweden. Only consumables like batteries, tires, glass etc was manufactured here. There was zero difference in quality between here and Gothenberg, and when the 850 arrived on the scene, it was awful everywhere, just like the XC90 is proving to be now. If a Canadian cannot hang a door as well as a Swede, Houston, we have a problem.

    For goodness sake, please update your mind and stop issuing old wives’ tales as if they were gospel. My twenty years of rotten Audis show that the Germans are perfectly capable of manufacturing rubbish all by themselves. Five brand new ones, and a new 1980 Jetta made in Germany that arrived with 1300 front springs, when it had a 1600 and air conditioning – ground clearance at the front, 3 inches. That’s German quality for you. Anyone with two functioning eyeballs could have seen something was wrong before shipping, but no, apparently they couldn’t. Got rid of that nightmare after 18 months. After the springs were fixed, the steering column failed, the gear selector went wrong – I had to drive around with the rubber boot off and a pair of pliers and a screwdriver to keep it fettled. No, I’m convinced that you Europeans have some kind of strange superiority complex that anything you make is wonderful, that other mere mortals cannot replicate this strange feat, and have a high tolerance for bad quality, airily dismissing all faults as minor..

    The Mk1 Golf rusted like crazy around here. So did the Dashers. The MKII didn’t rust and there are still examples around today. The Mk III was made out of tinfoil, none left. The Mark IV had a frangible interior with window lifts failing left and right, plus every glovebox door fell off – only TDIs left. The Mark V had weatherstripping designed to rip when it iced up few left. The Mark 6 was delivered with an engine of a noisy trundling nature, terrible economy and five cylinders. The Mk VII GTIs from just two years ago, all made in Germany, had turbocharger failures, and wheels painted by persons with two left hands.

    There’s reality and then there’s plucking nonsense and assumptions from one’s braincase. VWs, BMWs and MBs were never quality goods. You put up with the rubbish for the nicer ride/handling balance – once upon a time. Not any more. Then VW put out diesels with 40 times the nitrogen dioxide limits, because, well they thought themselves beyond the law. I can’t help it if Europeans have hypnotized themselves over supposed German quality. The rest of us, well we don’t have to have that kind of religion, we just observe.

    1. I think the reputation has more to do with VW (to this day) building cars to match the target price point in North America, more than the quality of the workmanship.

    2. I really only have a mass of secondary sources to go on. The general consensus is that VW didn’t or couldn’t assemble cars in Mexico to the same standard as in Europe.

    3. Steady, Bill. Nobody claims you’re an inferior human being in any way. Just because we put the hand that isn’t needed for operating a fork or spoon on the table, rather than keeping it hidden underneath, doesn’t make us Old Worlders believe we’re a Herrenrasse.

      In fact, the received wisdom on these shores is that VAG has been misunderestimating (sic) the US market and its customer base since the days of the ill-fated Westmoreland factory. This resulted in the cars being adapted in counterproductive ways, which led to their poor sales performance and even poorer reputation.

      It’s either that, Bill, or we’re just a bunch of sadomasochistic toffs that like to stick it to the Umericuns, because they’re the future, and we’re, like, the past.

    4. Sam: VW probably can’t sell a Golf of EU quality to US prices. It is clear enough that VW offer more than adequately reliable cars with better than average perceived quality; they aren’t selling on price and I don’t think there is much evidence that their strong sales position is built on illusions (diesel not withstanding). Contrariwise they languish in the US and among the likely culprits are product mix, marketing, quality and service.

    5. Maybe so. Another factor could also be VW’s tendency to over-complicate things in places, and cut corners in others. The case of breaking window brackets in the Golf MkIV (and Polos and Passats of the same era) is quite telling – a cheap, unreliable part in a difficult to access place is not a great idea. Likewise having to take the front bumper off to replace headlights…
      If it is still true that there are more people in North American than in Europe with the skills and tools required to do a lot of jobs on their cars, I can imagine them being reluctant to tackle those on a VW or Audi.

  9. In hindsight VW were unlikely to ever get radical, but I remember thinking at the time that the Golf II was awfully dated compared to the 1984 Kadett/Astra. The proportions always looked odd to me with that feature line that ran along the side from the top of the headlights to the bottom of the rear lamps. The early ones had the wing mirrors behind the front quarterlights which made it look even more ungainly.

    My father test drove one and thought it cramped and overpriced; he bought a Citroën BX14 instead and got a larger, higher-spec car for less money. It was reliable too.

    CAR magazine ran a scoop on the Golf III and said it was going to be radically styled and engineered. It wasn’t.

    The Golf IV and VII are the only ones that have ever appealed to me.

    1. The bit about the BX 14 stands out: it was the anti-Golf and still did all the same things. It’s hard to put the two cars in the same bracket yet without getting out my old pricelists, they competed. The BX sold by the bucket-load too “despite” its novelty. The juxtaposition also has an emperor’s new clothes effect. Yes: the Golf is the category killer and DTW even has a beautifully written article here on the topic (“If all the sea were ink”) that meditates on its focus and fitness-for-purpose. Yes, the Golf sells millions every and in so doing we back-project its eminent radiant brilliance onto its humdrum 1976 iteration and see what maybe wasn’t there. In my defence I have spotted the clunkiness of the Mk2 and Mk3 in comparison to the Astra F and yes, the last Kadett’s a much better-looking car.
      In brief: history is written to suit the winners. In another dimension we could be writing about the BX, Sud or Astra/Kadett’s inevitable rise to success.

  10. I drove the 1.4 and the 1.8t(150hp) gti mark IV many times, loved the interior but the drive was always disappointing. It’s the only golf that looks better as a 5 door than as a 3 door. At one point I was running 4 mark V golfs as driving school cars. Even the 1.6 fsi was better to drive than the previous gen GTI. That said it was the second most unreliable car I’ve ever owned ( the only less reliable car was a Suzuki Swift). We still run a 1.4tsi mark V with nearly 300000kms on the clock and it’s still pin sharp, much better than any of the 3 Foci on our fleet.

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