Is the unthinkable finally happening?
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 serious 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.
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.