A Tale of Two Cars

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.

Golf Car 1
They don’t make or publish them like they used to (source: author)

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.

Good old-fashioned motoring journalism covers reassuringly thorough new Golf development (source: author)

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).

Golf Car 3
Golf II dashboard and interior (source: author)

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.

Giant Test – the ultimate? (source: author)

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.

Golf Car 5
Wouldn’t you pay 15% more for the Golf over the Maestro? (source: author)

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?

golf 8
Golf VIII (source: Car Magazine)

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 .

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

27 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cars”

  1. Funny, I exactly remember that photo of the fuel tank which was also discussed in all German magazines.

  2. Good morning S.V. You draw a good parallel between the Golf and Car Magazine. The MkII was a serious car that eschewed fashion for enduring quality, whereas the MkVIII is fundamentally inferior to its predecessors(s) but very much ‘le plat du jour’ with its digital trickery, on which the TV advertising leads.

    I’ve long given up on the print edition of Car Magazine and only occasionally dip briefly into the website. One of the appealing qualities of the old Car Magazine was the lengthy, well-written and highly detailed pieces, which made for a really good read. It would be instructive to compare the word-count of a 1980’s edition of the magazine with a current edition. The magazine was then happy to review ‘ordinary’ cars that were relevant to the majority who couldn’t or didn’t aspire to the latest Ferrari or Lamborghini.

    I remember thinking before I gave up on it that there was very little worthwhile content for the £4.20 cover price. Yes, the photography was often excellent and I would browse through it, but there was little depth to the journalism. Try as he might, Anthony fFrench-Constant is no Leonard Setright: there is not much going on behind the florid prose. The (presumably paid) promotion of expensive watches was the final straw.

  3. Although I haven’t yet sat in an electric /digital Golf I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments written here. I too was an avid CAR reader through the 70s/80s/90s and haven’t owned a Golf either! The photograpy, the word count, the erudition all appealed, even the young James May was entertaining. I stopped my subscription when I reckoned that I knew more then the writers and the cars were increasingly irrelevant. And the Golf II, a technical improvement over the Mk1 for sure…but so blobby compared to the sheer surfaces of Guigario’s masterpiece.

    1. To someone growing up in ’80s/’90s Germany, the Golf Zwei was a defining element of the automotive landscape. It appeared overwhelmingly robust, like a somewhat uncouth take on the ‘quality turned form’ aesthetic of the VA-HH Mercedes models. Any sense of elegance seemed to have been sacrificed on the altar of visual robustness. It was hence the definition of a Spießerauto (a very petty-bourgeois choice), leaving plenty of room for Ford and Opel in particular to offer more advanced and fancy alternatives. The Golf Eins, on the other hand, seemed almost uncharacteristically chic by comparison – and hence rather at odds with the Heidedesign spirit of VW in those days.

      Rather amusingly, given its almost overbearingly stuffy flair and image, I recently learned that journalists were transported to the Golf II’s press launch by Concorde…

  4. Thank you for this article, S V.

    This is very much in keeping with what I’ve read elsewhere. When even Auto, Motor & Sport feel they have no choice other than to lambast a critical element of a VAG product, one is left in no doubt as to its dreadfulness – so despite no personal experience of VW’s new UX interface, I’d be very surprised if it was anything other than an utter omnishambles.

    ‘(…) that sense of every-element improved’ is an excellent way of describing ‘the Golf factor’. With the exception of the Mk III and V, every Golf always felt rather more expensive than the competition. Not more exciting to drive or look at, but like a somewhat more diligently honed product, certainly in terms of ergonomics and (perceived) quality. The Mk VIII marks so obviously a retrograde step in this regard that customers’ reaction will be very interesting to watch. It clearly doesn’t take a particularly watchful eye to spot the areas where Herbert Diess spilled all that red ink:

    1. Hi Christopher. Thanks for sharing that video. It was an excellent analysis of the practical deficiencies of the touchscreen controls in the Golf VIII when compared with the physical controls in its predecessor. The suggestion that you have to incorporate additional safety systems into the car to compensate for the driver being distracted by the screen-based controls is risible.

      Living in a rural area where we are almost never in traffic, I habitually switch off the stop-start as soon as I start the car, since it would make virtually no difference to emissions or fuel economy. Having to perform three steps to do this instead of one at present would drive me nuts.

      The issue of supported languages with voice-control hadn’t occurred to me before, but the reviewer is right: it would be annoying, and another potential distraction, if you had to speak in a language other than your native tongue to utilise such systems

      Incidentally, that exposed cupholder and 12V socket in the centre console looked pound-shop cheap. The lack of a strut to lift and support the bonnet may be a small detail, but I remember it being pointed out as one of the details that distinguished the Fabia from the more expensive Polo. The decontenting of the Golf must make the Octavia look even better value (although it remains to be seen what might have been done to the new model in this respect).

    2. Some here might remember my report on our VW T-Cross rental car a while back, which was among the first Diess-led products and very poor in terms of refinement and perceived quality.

      Without these traits, one wonders what is supposed to stand for these days. Describing the T-Cross as being ‘middle of the road’ would be too complimentary, so what is the lure of a VW supposed to be these days? ‘Drive one, because your neighbour has one too’?

  5. I think VAG have realised that customers, by and large, just don’t care about this. The current Audi A4 has been ruthlessly value engineered in a very un-Audi way; Ferdinand Piech must be raging down in hell.

    Similarly, I want to like the Mazda 3, and I really like the old model, but that torsion beam rear suspension simply isn’t good enough and it’s limitations are obvious on a bad road or as a rear seat passenger. It seems very un-Mazda to spend money on interior trim at the expense of chassis sophistication, but that’s probably what consumers respond positively to.

    Such a shame 20 years after the Mk1 Focus showed so clearly how good a lightweight hatchback with a properly set up “big boy” rear suspension can be.

    1. For some reason I found myself watching the TV launch advert for the “Erika” Mk3 Ford Escort the other day. From forty years ago. It mentions its independent rear suspension. Admittedly the UK version did get criticised at launch for its suspension, but still, IRS!

  6. If I may be a politely dissenting (and almost certainly bourgeois) voice:

    1) yes, I’m sure there has been some cost cutting on the Golf 8, but from the images it still looks very nice (depending on trim level and colour choices) and better than many / most competitors. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell without actually sitting in it oneself (and that isn’t going to happen for me, at least, in the near future, sadly)

    2) I would guess that many key components of the Golf 8’s interior are the same, or operate in a similar way to those in the I.D. 3. They can’t have got both very wrong, surely?

    1. Charles,

      I’ve only ever sampled the Golf VIII from the outside, but I did have a closer look at the ID3 at last year’s Frankfurt show. That car felt – and I’m not claiming this for dramatic effect – more like a Dacia than what we’ve come to expect from VW. In the context of a pioneering product that offers a USP to the detriment of certain other, traditional qualities, that may be considered an acceptable trade-off. But anyone used to a Golf VII will inevitable spot where money was saved, for the Golf and UD3 do share a fair few interior components, as you correctly pointed out. On that basis, I’m not the least bit surprised by the Golf interior’s reception, and also because the VW T-Cross – with which I’m rather better acquainted than I’d care – acted as a teaser for the Diess touch.

      (If you’re interested, you’ll find my more detailed notes on ID3 here: https://auto-didakt.com/random_blog_leser/iaa_frankfurt_motor_show_2019_car_design_report_review-bmw_concept_4-mercedes_eqs-porsche_taycan-audi_aitrail-vw_id3_hondae.html )

    2. Hello Christopher,

      Thank you – I look forward to re-reading your piece.

      I must say that I’m not keen on the T-Cross’s interior, as it seems a bit cheap and flashy to me. I’m also concerned about the wider use of cheaper plastics (e.g. in the Polo – the doors are dreadful).

      I think it’s okay for the I.D. 3 to be a bit ‘less traditional’ in colours, at least. However, I suspect that the way that the Golf 8 is controlled – via screens – is mirrored to a large extent in the I.D. 3, so I hope they have got the user interface right.

      I suspect that the Golf 8 will be the last Golf, if all goes to plan.

    3. The previous VW interface wasn’t brilliant – at least as far as the central touchscreen is concerned. But the most recent system seems to be a disaster: I urge you to check out that video I posted above. Auto, Motor & Sport called it ‘challenging to older drivers’, which I read as a euphemism for ‘borderline dangerous’, given how the local press does its utmost not to alienate the domestic OEMs in any way.

      Ironically, some of the Japanese brands have recently started reintroducing physical buttons for safety reasons, just as the Europeans are still trying to catch up with Tesla.

    4. Charles, I think Eóin and the team always like a different voice and view in the debate.

      For me, the just released photos of the interior of the new Citroën C4, show what VW could have achieved – and that says so much about how things seem to have changed chez VW and the Golf VIII (I don’t much fancy the C4’s exterior, though)

  7. The last time i drove a Golf by myself was a MkII or was ist a MkIII, I don´t remember. During the years I just was a Co-driver and all the owners always tould me “now the Golf has this… and this…” and I always thought ” yeah, and what for?”.
    One of our cars is from 1978, and you know what, he has no buttons at all. Believe it or not, we made trips to Munich, Zandvoort or St.Tropez and back, and the only thing that´s wipes is the windscreen wiper, because it´s his job – but only when it rains.

    1. Hi Fred. Your comment made me think about my experience with the Golf. I’m amazed to recall that I’ve only ever driven a Golf on one occasion, about 35 years ago. It was a Mk1 GTI belonging to a friend of mine. It was as light as a feather and an absolute hoot to chuck around, when I was into that sort of thing!

  8. This brought back good memories for me – that Giant Test was in the first or second copy of CAR I ever bought! Was that the one that also had a feature on the Africar?
    I rather like the style of the id3 as well as that of the Honda E, actually, so maybe that makes me one other dissenting voice. Most of the EVs we’ve seen so far have married unfamiliar proportions (because of the different package) to the kind of detailing designed to appeal to tech-friendly early adopters. I rather think what they need now for mass adoption is to be non-challenging, to remove as many barriers to the ownership experience. In effect this means the next generation or two of EVs need to look blandly similar to the ICE vehicles we currently have…

    1. I once saw someone spend ages asking a group about what an electric car should look like. The short answer is it looks something like a Golf or in other words just like any other car. The job is done when the e-car has a 450 km range, carries 4 people and 350 litres of luggage and costs about the same as an Astra, Focus or Golf does now.

      Some firms might want to signl the e-ness of their cars but it´s not needed in a strict sense. It is needed to differentiate from the firms who can afford to be “blandly familiar” as you put it.

  9. Ah, Car magazine in the 1980s. Dense text, clear photos and literate writers. Well, its spirit lives on (but not on paper and not among Bauer´s pixels)….
    I might be soon discarding some of my Car magazine collection. I´ll probably hang on to the ones up to 2004 but after that it´s just so much bad paper and boring text.

  10. Seeing the pictures of the new C4, the good thing is, it does not look like a BimmerBenz. The not so good thing is, it looks like a Toyota.

    1. Hmmmm, there is more than a touch of X4 about it’s profile, I find.

    2. That C4 is very depressing. I’m astounded to read in the Autocar link that the new car will cost slightly more than the £22,190 of the current C4 Cactus. Twenty two thousand pounds? That explains why I never see any! Although the fact it doesn’t look like a Cactus from the front any more might have something to do with it.

      So here’s a thought for Citroen. De-facelift the current Cactus, keep the new squidgy suspension and seats and sell a stripped out descendent-of-Dyane-2CV-Visa-Ami alongside the new C4. Let the Cactus finally come of age and be a Cactus!

  11. “bold”? No, it´s not bold it´s busy. The DS, CX, GS, BX and even Cactus were bold. This thing is three car designs crammed together and not one of them, if extracted, is any good.
    Most motoring journalists have no clue about design. I can´t think of a branch where ignorance of a central theme is so prevalent.

  12. Just as a bit of a counterpoint, here’s a reasonably balanced review, taken over 4 days, of the Golf 8 from an independent UK Volkswagen specialist. It’s a positive review – he’s a VWG fan – but not blindly so.

    I thought it was interesting to see his detailed assessment of vehicle quality compared with earlier Golfs; he answers the points raised in the video posted here, earlier.

  13. Kurt Lotz -> Carl H. Hahn -> Herbert Diess.
    When Diess is finally gone VW will need one more Ferdinand Piech to rescue the company but there won’t be one available.

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