The Case Is Altered

Is the unthinkable finally happening?

Golf 8. (c)

Nothing can be maintained indefinitely – even the most successful careers eventually end in failure. In 2017, when a drop in Volkswagen Golf sales was reported, it was viewed as an aberration, a blip in a broadly upward graph. However, just three years later, the realisation is dawning that the Golf as we know it not only has peaked, but is in notable decline.

Several weeks ago, I raised the question on these pages as to whether the new 8th generation would the first Golf debut that really didn’t matter? It was, to some extent a rhetorical query, and one which at the time was not picked up upon. I return to this subject today however, following a recent feature in Automotive News which questions the model line’s very future.

The Golf has come to embody Volkswagen, and the idea of VW no longer building a Golf-branded car therefore seems unimaginable. Successive generations of the car have contributed to Wolfsburg becoming an automotive colossus, but is its demise as unthinkable as it might first seem?

Back in 2017, the major threat to the Golf’s hegemony appeared to come from the C-segment offerings of BMW and Mercedes. The in-house Tiguan too of course, but at the time, VW’s compact crossover remained a comparatively distant threat. No longer. Three years on and for the first time, it has comfortably outsold its hatchback MBQ platform-mate, a matter which is also unlikely to be an aberration.

So yes, the times are not as they were and only a fool would lay claim to accurate predictions of how the next five years are likely to shake down, let alone the next ten. Especially in the wake of EU-wide emission regulations which are about to dramatically alter the automotive landscape in ways we probably haven’t quite grasped yet.

Volkswagen (like most carmakers), are mitigating for this, and if carbuyers adopt EV’s in sufficient numbers, they will be well positioned, assuming they can (a) deliver, and (b) build them profitably. And it is the latter in particular which is giving auto-executives sleepless nights. Because Wolfsburg’s financial commitment to electrification is not only colossal, but probably irreversible.

Because VW’s forthcoming EVs, led by the ID3 hatchback are not only where the primary focus (and funding to the tune of over €6bn) has been lavished within Volkswagen’s research and development centre, but also represents the next big leap for the carmaker, and if the hopes arising along the banks of Mittandkanal come true, it will transform the carmaker in the way the Golf did before it.

Nemesis, saviour or both? ID3  (c) Autocar

Meanwhile however, the new Mark 8 Golf has been introduced, and even if its external appearance looks a little more iterative than one might have hoped or imagined for such a significant step in the model-line’s evolution, (the previous car was a more progressive shape), it’s hardly as if it’s simply been dashed off by a bunch of interns.

Broadly speaking, Golf 8, despite having almost as many lines of code (over 100 million) within it as an Airbus A320 (owing to its class-leading connectivity and over-the-air updates), is basically a reskin of the outgoing car. This probably gives it at best a six year lifespan – raising the question of how, with the very real prospect of combustion engine bans looming, the landscape could appear by 2026/7.

Of course, nobody can be certain, but one possible outcome, if one takes the Automotive News assessment seriously, not to mention those analysts whose opinion they canvassed, is that this Golf generation might well be the last. Certainly, if sales continue to fall (projections suggest a loss of around 1 million over the Golf 8’s lifespan), and those of ID3 grow to fill the breach, the business case for investing hundreds of €millions on another generation to debut on the cusp of such a draconian cut-off (as some countries are now suggesting) could be very difficult to justify.

But can Volkswagen contemplate simply abandoning as iconic a nameplate as this? Of course every product, no matter how successful loses its appeal eventually, and a defining characteristic of any brand-icon lies in its ability to reinvent itself. The Golf formula we recognise has enjoyed a forty-six year run of almost unbroken success, so perhaps it’s time for Volkswagen, as they did so memorably in 1974, to move on to something new.

And yet, the Golf nameplate not only describes a product, but defines an entire sector. There are at least three generations of adults going about their daily lives who have never known a world without a Golf in it. Furthermore, the model line has sold over 35 million examples since its debut. Not to be sneezed at, by anyone’s reckoning.

Does the Mark 8 Golf matter? Of course it does. Nothing as expensively developed, that (declining sales notwithstanding) still commands its segment with such imperious authority, and remains (let’s not forget) its maker’s core offering could possibly do otherwise.

The first fissures upon the mighty Golf’s edifice are showing, but it’s far from done yet. The question is how much the Golf name matters – to buyers, or indeed to Volkswagen themselves. But it would be a brave individual nevertheless who betted against the nameplate at the very least living on, with or without a conventional power unit. Because while the case may indeed be altered, it’s far from proven.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “The Case Is Altered”

  1. The most dangerous thing not only for the Golf’s future but for the future of VW as a whole is Herbert Diess’ stubborn intention to only produce cars customers don’t want or buy .
    My personal estimate is that in twelve to fifteen years VW will no longer exist because it had bet on the wrong horse.

    And, yes, the Mk8’s debut might be the first that didn’t matter because that’s no longer a car but a smart phone on wheels with an overdose of electronic nonsense that a the same time is annoying, infuriating and nannying.

  2. Well, I ask “is there an 8th generation Golf”? I hadn´t noticed the news. So, yes, this must be the first Golf that did not matter. What has happened to the Focus and Astra is happening to the Golf. Where then is the new centre ground, the new “median” car?

  3. Good morning, Eóin. Your timely piece can be unpacked into three distinct questions:

    1. How integral is the instantly recognisable shape of the Golf profile to its appeal?

    2. How important is the Golf nameplate to its success?

    3. In any event, does the rise of crossovers make the demise (or relegation to a minority interest) of the conventional C-segment hatchback inevitable, the Golf simply being the “last man standing” because of its historic success and status as the car that defined the segment?

    Regarding the first two questions, to a large extent, VW is hedging its bets with its dual-track present strategy. It is continuing the Golf style and nameplate in an EV version of its perennial favourite. At the same time, it is accommodating those buyers who might find the Golf shape and nameplate a bit too familiar and want to make a much more explicit statement that they are embracing EV technology. The comparative sales performance of the e-Golf and ID3 will, I suspect determine the next step VW make. Personally, and much as I have liked the Golf over the years, I would by be ID.3 if I wanted a VW C-segment EV.

    Regarding the third question, it’s surprising that VW doesn’t offer an e-Tiguan. Perhaps they have already decided that EV buyers are more likely to be early adopters that will go for an ID.3X (or whatever they call it) if they want a C-segment crossover?

    It would be sad to see the Golf nameplate disappear, but it’s happened numerous times before in the auto industry: Escort and Cortina are just two of the nameplates that went from top sellers to oblivion. In both cases, it was because Ford wanted to signal a definitive break with the past to potential buyers (even if, in the case of the Sierra, that break was stylistic rather than engineering-led, the true break being the Mondeo).

  4. Odd not to mention the Beetle here.

    The Golf was developed to replace the Beetle, but of course the Beetle lived on for another 30 years.

    The ID was developed to replace the Golf, but the Golf will probably survive for a while longer.

    The platform that supports it – MQB – is a wonder of modern engineering and production. Will VW develop another ICE platform like this? Can it afford to? The answer to both questions is probably no.

    In that sense, this is probably the beginning of the end. Golf sales and market share will decline from here on in, but will likely remain significant for many years to come.

    VW have bet that the new electric vehicles need an entirely different platform – this is the only way to really exploit the inherent advantages of EVs, so is probably the right approach. If the ID3 delivers as promised, I think it is going to be a big success.

    1. I think this is an accurate reflection of VW’s strategy and plan. The surprise is that the ID3 looks as it does – kind of neither one thing nor another, if anything more like an MPV than anything else. Maybe this reflects the underlying BEV architecture, but I would have thought VW would have gone for more aping the SUV design language. It’s commendable in my mind that they haven’t, but I am clearly odd because the majority of the populace clearly wants an SUV shaped car these days.

    2. Thanks SV.

      The ID3 looks rational, above all, which makes it a fitting successor to those two VW staples.

      I am quite disappointed by the detailing on the Golf 8, it’s all very forgettable. Of course the basic shape and dimensions wouldn’t change much, but a little more pizzazz would have been nice.

  5. VW should just add an E to make GolfE, which when pronounced in German makes a meaningful word in English.

    On SUV dominance: it’s hard to know how long that’ll last too, especially as E car demand is speeding up. And that trend depends on the outcome of global energy wars, where I suppose what China wants China will get, even if there’s a fair bit of obvious nannying.

  6. It’s time for the Golf to die. You need to cannibalise your own market before a competitor does. Apple killed off the hugely successful iPod mini when it was still a young product and replaced it with the even more successful iPod nano, because the technology had moved on.

  7. I think it was Malcolm Muggeridge who said that when you get old you seem to eat breakfast twice a day. He was referring to the sense in which time speeds up for the elderly. In my case it seems like a new Golf comes along every 24 months. Generally, my increasing age results in most things from after 2010 (actually 2000) seem inauthentic. Or put it another way, the world doesn´t settle enough for me to feel like anything is established. E-classes seems so ephemeral. I cam to view the second last Insignia and the Mondeo as something like solid elements of the carscape. Mercedes is a blur of new product. In a way I really like both Ford and Opel´s stability. I can visualise Insignias and Mondeos whereas Benzes and BMWs are a like shimmering wave on a hot driveway. Audi less so though you could probably trick me by swapping the current and last generation products around. And Volvo – there´s another brand who manage to establish their models before killing them off. Isn´t that an odd reversal?
    So, hello and goodbye Golf 8. You´ll vanish from the showrooms in a few months and will make even less of an impact on my life than the Golf 7.

    1. Hello Richard – I recall (probably incorrectly) that you quoted an author on the subject of authenticity in time in a previous post, but I can’t find it. Do you have the reference?

  8. Ford announced the end of the Fusion in 2020 almost two years ago, but apparently production will now extend into 2021. The reason is the beast still sells.

    So it may be a bit premature to think the Golf will be ending production any time soon — surely if the economics make sense and if enough people want them, they’ll keep on churning them out even if they’re powered by turbocharged model aircraft engines to meet the required CO2 per kilometre regulations.

    I found the Mk7 and corresponding Audi A3 in four door form to be completely unfriendly to get in and out of, particularly exit. At my age, I am simply not limber enough to comfortably haul myself out of a coal scuttle, particularly when the door cannot be opened wide due to another car being parked next to it. I put an A3 salesman of ample girth in his forties through the exercise in his showrooom, where the A3 was rather close to an A4. He had dismissed my “complaint” until he tried it himself, and found it very difficult. He was enough of a sport to try my Subaru Legacy outside, and finally “got” what I was saying, because it was easy, and had nothing to do with ground clearance, which was only a minimal 12 cm. The body design and shape was simply superior in every regard.

    This crossover nonsense has been driven by windscreens too raked back on saloons and hatches to allow a reasonable position for the B-pillar, which is too far forward, which leaves the unfortunate front seat occupants’ shoulders wedged against the pillar. So exit involves springing oneself forward while at the same time hanging the (in my case) left leg over a wide sill. And if ergonomicists had been employed and spent five minutes checking nonsense like this out at the design stage, then the silliness would have been designed out. And VW is hardly the only car company at fault in this regard.

    Instead, we have come as a whole to the somewhat illogical conclusion that the higher ground clearance of the typical crossover means that it’s easier to enter and leave simply because the seats are mounted higher. Look at most crossovers and they do not have the laid-back windscreens that saloons have either. That helps. I don’t like the really tall crossovers like the Mazda CX-5, because my toes don’t even touch the ground when I initially leave, meaning the raised seat side would get squashed and abraded every time I got out. Surely, a look at cars from a couple of decades ago show a happy medium, which designers have since rejected for reasons beyond my ken beyond style. So these less efficient barn door crossovers have proliferated for reasons that have little to do with logic but because they’re actually more like typical cars of yore, which people unconsciously prefer. C’est la vie.

    I have to admit that I am completely unsold on the wonky maths used to equate fossil fuel use to EV efficiency, wherein a litre of petrol’s potential energy is the yardstick against which EV efficiency is measured. There is no thermodynamic cycle that is 100% efficient or even close to it. So any electricity generated by thermal means from oil or coal is limited to perhaps 45%, not counting so called c0-generation, where low temperature waste heat can be used to heat buildings in the local area. Germany is still ripping up vast areas of its countryside to mine brown coal for thermal plants, for example, with the world’s biggest couple of giant mobile machines. Following the generation of electricity, there are significant losses from its distribution before it then meets a needy discharged EV. If you believe the guff, EVs are three times more efficient than an equivalent IC engine car, because such common sense as realizing you can’t transform a litre of petrol or diesel 100% to electricity is simply disregarded, presumably for political purposes. So we are hoodwinked.

    Of course, any electricity generated by renewable means lowers the impact of thermal generation-produced electricity, and I’m all in favour. But we’re not there in a happy shiny place yet. France seems set on nuclear, and one hopes they perform adequate maintenance on that stuff. My own country is about as two-faced on the subject as can be imagined. Overall our electricity supply is over 70% non thermal, but we happily dig up bitumen sludge, process it so it can flow in pipelines and flog it to the Americans. We of course do not count the CO2 thus generated against our budget. Add such nonsense onto forest/bush fires whose CO2 nobody seems to account for because it’s “natural”, and the collective fog of illogic the human race suffers under as if hynotized is perpetuated. I personally am not optimistic that things will go very well in the next 15 to 20 years. We’re struggling. No wonder the young are annoyed at us, because we don’t seem to be honest with ourselves in so many ways.

    1. Much as a like cars in isolation they have been a bit of a wrong-turning in human development. I´d much rather see effort spent on re-engineering a society less dependent on zooming about in 1500 kg pods. Sure, it´s not easy but doing nothing is going to be harder still. If I was a car company I´d liquidate my assets and cite Hayek on creative destruction to keep the market fanatics happy.

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