As we await the newest iteration of VW’s bestseller, we examine what opposition it will face.
It’s no good. Despite repeated efforts, no European carmaker has successfully unseated the Volkswagen Golf from its lofty promontory; a position unique insofar that not only does it occupy a sub-segment of its own, but also in that its name can be expressed as both noun and adjective.
In fact, one senses that VW’s rivals have largely given up, corralling their efforts for a distant second or third place. Do I overstate matters? Not when the Golf’s nearest non-VW group rival cannot even muster 50% of the Wolfsburg bestseller’s market share in 2018 alone.
Europe’s C-segment was worth in the region of 2.13 million* sales last year. Of those, the combined VW group was responsible for 885,759 of them, with about half of these being Golf shaped. Further cold-comfort for Wolfsburg’s opponents is the revelation that Skoda’s Octavia ran the Golf closest in sales terms, ending the year a distant second.
The Golf shed sales last year, owing partially to its imminent (if delayed) replacement, issues surrounding VW’s non-compliance with WLTP emissions rules (an issue shared with some rivals), and also to the sector as a whole shrinking; attacked on two fronts by C-segment crossovers and so-called ‘compact premium hatchbacks’.
This latter threat is only numerically significant to Volkswagen if one pools the sales of Audi’s A3, BMW’s 1-Series, and Mercedes’ A-Class, which cumulatively amounted to 423,977 cars last year, still a way short of Wolfsburg’s mighty wind. However, this sub-segment continues to grow and it’s VW’s rivals who have most to fear from its encroach.
But if the mainstream C-sector in 2018 was characterised by a certain stasis, 2019 is shaping up to deliver changes to its composition, largely owing to several product announcements which took place last year now starting to make themselves felt.
The most significant of these is Ford’s latest generation Focus, which was introduced last Spring. Ford has made a noticeable effort to shift the aesthetics of this model away from that of its predecessors. Characterised by voluptuous surfacing, which combined with a cab-rearward bias, is intended to suggest a rear-wheel drive powertrain, this is Ford’s attempt to subtly edge the Focus upmarket, in perception terms anyway.
In run-out mode, the outgoing model held on solidly into the summer, aided no doubt by generous incentives, the Focus ending 2018 in third position overall. Given a following wind and the continued uplift of the new-generation model, second place (some considerable way) behind the Golf seems within the bounds of possibility especially given that the Octavia is now perceived as fading slightly.
Mlada Boleslav however, has not sat on its hands, Skoda’s product strategists clearly of the view that a dedicated C-sector hatchback is vital to their ambitions. The new Scala, in essence a larger, less penitential rethink of the Rapid formula, offers more of a value proposition to that of its distant Wolfsburg relative. With Skoda’s enviable reputation for build and durability, a top ten placing is entirely within the bounds of probability by year’s end, leapfroging Kia/Hyundai and Fiat in the process.
Last year, Toyota held a robust-looking eighth place with the outgoing C-segment Auris, which was superseded by a model marking the global return of the Corolla nameplate, hitherto confined to a three-volume offering. On a new platform and carrying the latest iteration of whatever stylistic hobby horse the design team at Toyota City currently bestrides, the new-generation Corolla, which is also available (uniquely?) as a hybrid, will, like its C-HR crossover sibling, undoubtedly prove to be a car customers purchase in spite of its appearance. But visuals aside, both Renault and Seat ought to keep a close eye in their rear view mirror.
While the Seat Leon has age to excuse it – somewhere in the VAG queue for renewal whenever VW gets around to debugging Golf VIII, Renault has few places to hide in accounting for the Megane’s 18% sales drop – significant for a model only three years on the market. Yes, Opel/Vauxhall’s Astra shed more market share (27%), but the reasons are known and quantifiable – its PSA parent choosing profitability over volume.
For the foreseeable future, we can probably forget about the Astra as a top three contender – its 2018 volumes now close to that of its PSA stablemate, Peugeot’s long-in-the-tooth, if still remarkably hearty 308.
The sector’s dark horse however is Mazda, who introduce their new generation 3 this year. The outgoing model, despite its broad competence and the endorsement of the media (some particularly close to home), faded badly, posting a 12% drop in 2018 over the previous year, outsold by Honda’s love it or hate it Civic.
This places Mazda at the bottom of the leading (combustion engined) C-sector contenders which gives the new generation 3 a lot of ground to make up. However, it does appear that Hiroshima have factored this into their calculations; the new 3’s proposition being (within the bounds of a segment so rigidly conformist), defiantly leftfield, with an even more extreme take on cab-rearward style, adopting an almost coupé silhouette.
One suspects that volume is not their number one priority, but given the stated excellence of the product and the promise inherent in its forthcoming powertrains, Mazda could spring something of a surprise.
Less of a surprise will be the eighth iteration of the eternal Golf, now set for an October reveal. Unsurprising firstly because thinly disguised prototypes have been doing the rounds of the tabloids for months, so it’s apparent that the four-decade old formula hasn’t been interfered with – although Golf 8 appears to have escaped the worst of the Heidedesign v2.0 tropes which currently blight most of the VW range.
One area where Golf VIII will differ from its predecessor is in technology, with the VW offering levels of connectivity and driver assistance systems previously the preserve of larger, more upmarket vehicles. While these will place more clear water between Golf and its mainstream ‘rivals’, the likely intention is to elevate the model closer in desirability (and transaction price) terms to Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
But perhaps the Golf’s sternest challenge will be homebaked. At this Autumn’s Frankfurt motor show, VW is set to reveal its new range of ID-branded electric vehicles, the first of which is believed to be a Golf-sized hatchback. Clearly VW hopes this will prove to be as transformative a model introduction as the Golf proved to be forty five years ago, so what this means for the future of VW’s mainstay product is a question worth asking.
The likelihood of course will be that one will ultimately subsume the other. Given the commercial robustness of the nameplate and the fact that has become so embedded in our consciousness, chances are that Golf will in the fullness of time add to its grammatical lexicon by also becoming a verb.
*All data – Carsalesbase.com