Today we feature a car that was the product of a highly effective facelift of its stodgy predecessor.
The 1997 Golf Mk4 is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of disciplined and rational design. Its svelte exterior was handsome and timeless, and a huge improvement over the flabby Mk3. The interior was a revelation, bringing a level of quality to the Golf that had not been seen before in C-segment cars. The Mk4 remained on the market for eight years, during which time it remained virtually untouched, Volkswagen sensibly realising that it was impossible to improve upon its near perfection.
When it came time to replace the Mk4, Volkswagen dropped the ball. The 2003 Golf Mk5, whilst not exactly ugly, looked rather corpulent, and much of the detailing was rather too fussy for a Golf. The Mk5 was partly a product of VW Group Chairman Ferdinand Piëch’s aggressive strategy to move Volkswagen upmarket to challenge Mercedes-Benz, with Audi tasked to challenge BMW.
The understated reserve of the Mk4 was replaced by a rather more showy aesthetic, with complex light graphics and, on the range-topping R32 model, the large and heavily chromed bib front grille that became a hallmark of high-spec New Millennium Volkswagens. However, and despite Piëch’s lofty ambitions for the marque, the interior was adjudged to have taken a backward step in quality from the Mk4.
Tellingly, the Golf Mk5 lasted only five years on the market, compared to at least seven for each of its predecessors. The Golf Mk6 was revealed at the Paris Salon in September 2008 and went on sale immediately, a year earlier than previously promised.
The Mk6 was not an all-new car, but a clever makeover of the Mk5. While it retained the centre section of the outgoing model, it introduced simpler and cleaner front and rear ends, successfully restoring what most would perceive to be Golf design cues to the model(1). This was less straightforward than it might have seemed: the designer had to meld the new more angular light units and a slim, horizontal grille with the smooth and fulsome curves of the original design, but did so very successfully(2).
The interior quality was also restored to the level of the Mk4. Unusually for what was a facelifted model, the Mk6 was almost as long-lived as its predecessor and remained on the market until January 2013.
It was to Volkswagen’s credit that they did not attempt to improve the Golf Mk4 with a facelift, but the same cannot be said of the contemporary Passat, the 1997 B5 model. Like the Golf, this was another masterful design and very much in the same mould, elegant in a disciplined and understated way.
Understatement was, however, not what Piëch wanted in his quest to challenge Mercedes-Benz, so a facelift was ordered. The revised car, the 2001 B5.5, was given a deeper front grille, now separated from the slimmer but busier looking headlamps, which were raised and cut into the leading edge of the bonnet. At the rear, the taillights were revised to be larger with more complex graphics. The changes were relatively minor, but none was an improvement over the original design, which like the contemporary Golf, was impossible to enhance.
(1) One detail where the Mk6 deviated from the Golf design standards was in the treatment of the rear light clusters. Uniquely on a Golf, these were allowed to cut into the rear wing and interrupt the continuity of the tailgate shut line, which had previously continued downward to meet the bumper to wing panel gap. The traditional treatment was restored on the Mk7 and continues on the latest Mk8 model.
(2) Much more successfully than the misbegotten 2013 facelift to the Škoda Yeti, where new angular front and rear ends sat uncomfortably against the highly distinctive original design.