Seeing the ‘all-new, all-digital’ (it is neither) Golf VIII being advertised led me to dig out Car’s launch and first drive article covering the Golf II. Both the modern-day car and Car suffer from the comparison.
When I wrote my last effort for DTW, Computer World, I had no idea that VW would go ‘all-digital’ in its portrayal of what is perhaps its most revered existing icon. VW’s version of ‘digital’ isn’t all that different from that of the 1983 Austin/ MG Maestro, and it seems to have paid for the extra gimmickry by de-contenting the new Golf in subtle and yet significant ways. Instantly, it seems they have thrown away that constant sense of superiority and quality which, in my mind, the Golf has always possessed.
I have never owned a Golf, and only relatively recently driven one (it was a courtesy car whilst my Octavia was in for a service). It’s a car I have often revered – starting with the MkII (I was too young to remember the launch of the MkI), then the Marks IV, V, VI and VII. A friend had a MkV R32 with DSG at the same time that I had my first Legacy Spec-B and I have to admit that it was the better car all round – just far too obvious and predictable a choice for an inverted car-snob idiot like me.
Like many things automotive in my younger days, my opinion of the Golf was formed by reading Car magazine. I have been a reader for over 35 years and a subscriber for about 25 of those. It’s an institution, like the Golf. It’s also a shadow of its former self, like the new Golf. I have felt this about Car for many years, but, having very recently read about the Golf II in the September 1983 edition of Car, I think it’s true of the new VW too.
The main article in question was authored by Steve Cropley, no less. The article is no fawning accolade to the then new Golf, but a measured and balanced critique which says it how the writer finds it. Here’s the second paragraph:
“Surprise Number Two is that VW’s managers considered 10 concrete ‘concepts’ for the new Golf, several of them from outsiders, before opting with disappointing conservatism for the final shape which so closely shadows the look of the previous model. It is no surprise, on the other hand, that this is attributed to VW’s in-house styling department: they have developed a reputation in the past few years for producing sensible, professional but somehow lacklustre shapes for VW cars – witness the Scirocco, Polo, Passat in their second versions.”
Ouch – all the more so for the matter of fact way in which the opinion is delivered (you’d never guess this is the same guy who dominates Autocar’s (at times) heavily biased editorial tone and opinion these days).
The article systematically goes through every aspect of the Golf II. The picture emerges of a team of people, led by Chief Engineer Christian Hildebrandt, meticulously revising every aspect of the Golf in order to improve it and yet retain the very essence of the original. There are exciting photos of the moulded plastic fuel tank, the flush-glazed front quarter light and the superbly ergonomic dashboard, with its simple and clear instrument panel and high mounted audio-kit and HVAC controls. The impact and impression is that the result is a solid quality item which doesn’t need to draw attention to itself, and is all the more desirable for that.
The article concludes (having inexplicably jumped from page 73 to 149):
“Since the Golf is obviously going to continue being significant to the progress of the motor car, it is a great shame that it looks so insignificant in its new version. It doesn’t suit the making of history – even if it makes sales. Still, buyers of this car in 1990 won’t need to feel nostalgia for the old Golf of ’74 that started it all. They’ll be driving something rather too familiar.”
I didn’t keep the recent edition of Car which included the equivalent article about the new Golf VIII, and can’t recall much of what it said – except that it might be the first Golf that didn’t matter (due to the parallel existence of the ID.3). This says it all in terms of how disposable I find Car’s content these days (why is the editorial approach always ‘5/ 10 things which mean the new XXXX will be the new whatever’). At the same time, that comment which I can recall might explain why the new Golf seems a backward step.
Going back to that summary from the September 1983 article, I find it interesting, the juxtaposition of the Golf being praised in the first clause as being significant to the progress of the motor car, and yet shamed for its insignificant looks in the second. You could think, ‘plus ça change’ regarding the transition between the Golf VII and the latest car. But, actually, for me it’s the opposite.
Like the Maestro, it seems like someone decided, quite late in the Golf VIII’s gestation, that it needed an overload of ‘digital’ trickery to compete the competition on their terms, rather than trusting in further refinement of the factors which make the Golf classless.
Whereas the Golf II was evolved with a painstaking approach of improving every aspect of the car, the VIII has taken a very different path. Some of the details which made every generation of Golf – bar the MkIII – feel like it is built to a higher quality than everything else in the class have been taken away in the quest to reduce production costs.
For example, the gas-struts which support the bonnet on the Golf VII have made way for a metal prop. Those lovely sound-damping fabric cushioned linings for the glove box have gone, leaving noise-enhancing and scratchy bare plastic. The doors now open and close to the sound of a twang which I recognise from our Tychy-built FIAT 500.
I can keep going. The quality feeling and acting metal turn-knobs and button-based HVAC controls have gone, replaced by functions on the main infotainment screen and oddly positioned touch pads actuated by sliding one’s finger over them. On the other side of the steering wheel, the intuitive primary control knob for the lights is replaced by buttons and LEDs which demand more than a glance to know which setting they are on. And finally, the new digital IP itself is set in ugly and naff looking piano-gloss black plastic.
Of course, the Golf VIII does have advancements on the VII, like mild-hybrid assisted drivetrains and driver-assist functions, but none of these differentiate from the competition. But it has lost that sense of every-element improved that marked out the development of earlier Golfs like the MkII.
Perhaps the thing they have in common is that both cars’ exterior design came as a disappointment compared with their predecessors. I think the Golf VII is timeless and still looks sharp and confident. The VIII already looks dated because, on first sight, it appears to be a poorly executed face-lift to the front and rear of the VII. I’d argue that the Golf II at least aged well and probably looked more ‘right’ in the context of what was on the market in the late 80’s than it did when first launched.
Going back to Car’s assessment of the Golf II, it Giant Tested a 1.6l GL version against the Horizon, Escort and Maestro in its March 1984 edition. Hard to believe now that it was ranked third (the Escort shaved the win) for the reasons summarised as follows:
“It may well be the best car in the group, on the basis that it has the fewest identifiable faults … but the overall competence of the Maestro and Escort make it impossible to justify spending another 15% on the Golf when it is no bigger inside [than the Maestro], little if any faster, and not that much more economical”.
Did Car thus inadvertently lend a sense of reassuringly expensive to the Golf in coming to that conclusion? Who knows?
Reviewing what Mr. Cropley wrote of the Golf II has just reminded me how both Car and Golf have strayed from what made them reference points during so much of my lifetime. One could say that Car was overly-influenced by Top Gear (although I think the rot really set in when FF Publishing sold out) and, more recently, that VW has had its head messed-with by the success of the digitally blinged-up A-Class.
Wrongly (probably), I see the Mazda3 as the new torch-bearer for the kind of quality-evolutionary approach in its class, but then, I am an inverted car-snob idiot who has never owned a Golf of any roman numeral, and so am blinded to a more obvious candidate for that accolade .