Under the knife – Bogey to Birdie

Today we feature a car that was the product of a highly effective facelift of its stodgy predecessor.

VW Golf Mk5 vs Mk6 (c) carscoops.com

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.

VW Golf Mk5 R32 (c) carthrottle.com

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).

VW Golf Mk5 and Mk6 rear (c) golfmk6.com

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.

VW Golf MK6 (c) autoevolution.com

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.

VW Passat B5 vs B5.5 (c) autoblog.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

35 thoughts on “Under the knife – Bogey to Birdie”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Fully agree here. Out of generation IV to VI I still like the IV best. My mom had a black ’98 1.6 Highline. It was the only car in our family ever to earn a nickname and with 20 years of ownership the one we kept longest. It was traded in together with my dad’s BMW for a new Golf VII as my parents decided they no longer needed two cars. One was enough. My mom misses her Golf IV to this day.

  2. The Golv V appeared on the market a year after Fugen-Ferdl moved from VW’s CEO to supervisory board. If I remember correctly the chrome bib was a personal decision of mister Pischetsrieder following a proposal of Murat Günak. I always wondered what VW managers had smoked before deciding in favour of this chrome nonsense and the Flash Gordon rear lights of that generation of Volkswagen products.

    The Golf V had to go out of production as soon as possible because its new door design didn’t work – the Golv VI had conventional doors. The V’s doors were two piece designs where the outer skin was bolted to the door ‘box’ like a lid after all parts in the door had been fitted. In theory that made door production easier and much cheaper because things like side impact beams and window winders didn’t need to be threaded into the door through cut outs in the tin but could be accessed very easily.
    Problem was that this production method didn’t work and many Golf Vs spent more time in rectification of their doors than on the production line for the whole car.

    1. I remember my son arriving at our home with an example of the new Golf V, and as I examined it the doors stopped me in my tracks. I assumed they were made that way to make it cheaper to repair accidents, but I also assumed they must be very expensive to manufacture.
      I remember dismantling the drivers door of a first gen A3 to replace the door lock ( I told him to buy something Japanese..) and it was like a meccano set, aluminium wedges to infinitely adjust the angle of the window frame.
      I’m glad I’m not alone in admiring the Golf IV – for many years I couldn’t walk past one without stopping to admire the detailing.

  3. Good morning gents. Freerk, I’d agree about the Golf IV being the best of the trio, but for me the VI might be an even greater achievement as it had to work with the centre section of the V without looking like an obvious facelift.

    Dave, that’s really interesting about the doors, and something I didn’t know, so thanks for sharing.

    Here are a couple of interesting photo I came across this morning, comparing the three generations:

    There must be some distortion that makes the V look narrower in the first photo, but it’s a good comparison nonetheless.

    1. Here’s a picture of a Golf 5 door with the outer skin removed in order to replace the door lock:

      It’s easy to imagine that these doors are simpler to work on if only they had worked.

    2. I have to disagree generally. I feel the Mk6 is blobular, bland and generally lardy compared to the leaner looking Mk5. I particularly like the MK5’s ass and raised black plastic bumper line. The rear lenticular lights are also distinctive.

    3. Good evening Dorothy. Welcome to DTW and thank you for your comment. We’re a broad church here and welcome all opinions, even dissenting ones! “Lenticular” is also a delightful descriptor for the Mk5’s rear lights.

  4. Competitive side profiles, showing the manner in which the rear light cluster interrupted the tailgate’s shut-line on the VI, unique to that Golf generation. Also evident are the new and subtly reprofiled door skins Dave mentions above:

  5. A Passat B5.5 was undoubtedly the most solid looking and feeling car that I ever owned, but not the most reliable one… In 30+ years of driving, I only had two water pump failures, on a Fiat Uno and a Passat B5.5…

  6. A friend had an R32 some years back as it fitted his own flamboyant style along with him coming into a few quid. He “treated” me to one terrifying passenger trip where the only things I remember were how fast the scenery was passing by and the egregious nature of the thing. Exiting a whiter shade of pale, I saw the car no more for a few days later it had been nicked from outside his home, never to be seen again. He’d had the car all of six weeks! He replaced it with a Passat Estate, not sure if it that was a 5 or 5.5 but he was very much into the Vee-Dub scene.

  7. I saw/ see the 6 very much as a facelift – you can’t just change the front rear and door skins and expect people to believe it’s a whole new car with the same profile, DLO etc. From then onward to now, I’d say all Golfs feel a bit like they’ve just been subtly tweaked from the 5 with no big obvious changes (other than biggerification). 🙂
    Passing thoughts – would love to drive a cyberpunk/post apoc 5 with intentionally no door skins or plexiglass ones – so cool to see all the interior bits – like an original iMAc. Also -the clean line of the boot lid /rear light/rear mudguard on the 5 is much nicer than the 6.

    1. Huw, I’d say that the same applies to the Passat. I had a B6 estate, with very few memorable features, but to me the side profile looks very close to the current B8 model, so therefore like a 15 year-old car.

    2. Dare I ask what the orange thing sitting in the right-hand ‘birds nest’ is supposed to be?

    3. “the clean line of the boot lid /rear light/rear mudguard on the 5 is much nicer than the 6”

      Yes, I have exactly the same feeling! The V’s rear has got simpler lights (‘eye’ graphics aside), cleaner surfaces and a simple, effective black fascia flush with the bumper.
      By contrast, the VI shared some annoying details with its contemporaries: bulbous red/white rear lights, fully painted rear bumper with a black ‘lip’ that didn’t fully conceal the exhaust.

      Having said this, the R32 remains exceptionally ugly.

      As to the busy front lights in the 2001 restyled Passat, that is mostly the effect of the transition from opaque glass to transparent plastic while retaining the same internal bulb arrangement. The Audi A4, BMW E39, Volvo V40 were also negatively affected by this.

    4. Hi Huw and Jeroen. Thanks for expressing your defence of the Golf V. Sincerely, these pieces are always subjective and it’s always good to have a counter-argument.

  8. The Mk6 being slightly less awful than the Mk5 is hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s still bloated. The Mk7 was much better; crisper. I just did the maths and 62.5% of Volkswagen’s Golf designs have been misses rather than hits.

    1. Hi John. Presumably your three out of eight hits are Golf I, IV and VII?

      My best to worst ranking would go I, IV, VII, VI, II,III, VIII, V.

    2. Once again I agree here. The sequence seems to be one hit, two misses. We’ll have to wait for the Golf X.

    3. Hi Daniel, I am a golf Fan so I really liked your article, talking about the Polo 6N the restyling was better than the original, than there was a drop in the style with the 9N in my opinion.

    4. Well observed, Freerk. That sequence had escaped my notice.

      Marco, agreed regarding the Polo. We’ve more Golf coverage coming up shortly so stay tuned!

  9. Interesting to read about some of the design flaws that VW have made with the Golf over the years.The current Mk7 is renowned for splitting the plastic casing on the thermostat housing . It’s a nasty plastic thing and main dealers are seeing three or four a week. Good business in a way for them as it’s hidden at the back of the engine and is a major job requiring removal of major engine bits and ancillaries to get at. Owners are faced with a bill of around £1100 for this and there’s no goodwill payments if your out of warranty.
    Don’t ask me how I know…

  10. One thing that struck me a couple of years ago, idly comparing Golf generations in the office car park on my coffee break (honestly!) one morning, was how the glass area had steadily decreased across iterations IV to VII. VW are hardly any worse than any other manufacturer in this, to be fair. In fact they may well be better than quite a few others, but the evolutionary nature of the Golf’s styling makes it easier to see…

  11. I got to drive a friend’s R32 with DSG – it was quite sensational. I had my Subaru Legacy Spec B at the time, which I loved, but, I have to say, the VR6 Golf was something else to punt around.

  12. At the time of the B5 facelift, US media reported that the front end changes were related to modifying the crash structure to comply with new mandates. It supposedly also allowed for easier fitting of the W8. Any truth to that?

    Off topic, this was around the time that VW and Fiat were allegedly collaborating on future Maseratis; what’s the real story behind that?

    1. Hi Ben. I’m afraid I have no intelligence on either matter, but perhaps my fellow contributors or our knowledgeable commentariat might be able to enlighten us both?

  13. As a former Golf III and Golf IV driver, I like to share how deeply I loved the IV. Especially at launch this car was such a leap ahead in quality.
    But let’s be aware; for a large extend this was about ‘perceived quality’. A skill that was honed to perfection at VW those days. The car gave the impression being classes higher and more luxurious than it’s rivals. And than the Golf III it replaced.
    It makes one wonder what quality is about. Is it about the experience of luxury, by using soft materials in the interior for example. Or is it about true, long lasting reliabilty and trouble-free ownership? Even when the dash is molded from sturdy plastics. Let’s say the ‘Subaru approach’.
    Still love the Golf IV though.

    1. Hi Peter, and welcome to DTW! You’re poking at one of our wasps’ nests when you raise the vexed question of perceived vs underlying quality. I very much in your camp and am more impressed by mechanical precision and longevity than squishy soft-touch surfaces, the ‘Subaru approach’ as you aptly describe it.

    2. I think you’ve both helped me towards an answer, Peter & Daniel.

      ‘Quality’ is ‘fitness for purpose’ – so it’s reliability, a certain degree of robustness, luxurious-looking materials, easy to use, attractiveness and so on.

      However, it’s no good having plush surfaces if the car won’t start; but if it’s deficient in its ‘squish factor’, or is ugly, then it’s just ‘utilitarian / reliable’, rather than ‘high quality’, as it’s deficient in one or more of the factors which could make it fit for its purpose (depending on how one defines that purpose).

      Of course, the extent of ‘squishiness’ required varies – it’s less relevant in a Suzuki Jimny, just as the quality of ‘robustness’ should be redundant in a Victoria sponge cake.

      And it’s a matter of taste – where one person sees luxury, another may see ostentation (or, indeed, lack of it). I think quality is somewhat in the eye of the beholder and, as I think Daniel said, is additionally influenced by preconceived perceptions of a brand.

  14. The Golf IV is the last truly, properly and uncompromisingly german car.

    Styling wise, it is an exercise in clinical simplicity, spiced up with a supercar-worthy C-pillar execution, and opulent, subtly bulging wheelarches that
    subliminally convey a GTI-as-stock message. With the right tyre
    & wheel combination, their effect is palpable.

    Where it scores most is its deep, W123-like hewn-from-solid feeling that shines through not only in the superficial, tangibly accessible areas, but
    also in the way the entire mechanical/suspension/steering/drivetrain
    tactile & NVH feedback are so carefully harmonised between each other.

    It literally merges in one ‘fluid mechanical spirit’, and the NVH messages
    it conveys make the driver and passengers unable to identify the root source.

    The old cliche of a perfectly harmonised orchestra is endlessly applicable.

    Most other engineering teams, would use such technical sophistication & effort into obtaining an NVH-free car – which is wrong, from a perspective of a true driver (cars, as we knew them, perhaps ‘died’ exactly to this wrong NVH direction). VW, however, with the Mk4, used their NVH mastery
    to create a car that actually ‘talks to you’, but it’s not the individual parts
    of the car that do the talking.


    Moreover, the 1,9 TDI versions (having the colossal torque to make the underlying weight actually ‘dissappear’), thus possess the quality to make
    the car feel ‘Peugeot 205 featherweight & sprightly’, whilst offering levels
    of road isolation and plushness that only a 2-tonne car
    of premium provenance can deliver.

    The only downside to the Mk4 TDIs are that, once you’ve sampled one and its surreal ability described above, you cannot bear to live with the (soulless
    & clumsy in comparison), otherwise very fine-driving petrol versions.

    In my book, the above is enough to make the Mk4 an automotive
    icon in its own right.

  15. The Golf V’s siblings soldiered on without major restyling. The Leon evolved from an attractive Giugiaro design to a monovolume-esque mk2. Not an ugly car, but compared to an Alfa 156 or the first Audi A5 not the finest design Walter Da Silva made. It soldiered on until 2012.

    The second generation A3, the first car to introduce the PQ35 platform, received gradual tweaks. With obviously the adoption of the single frame grill as the biggest change. But the base design lasted for 10 years.

    So the styling of the Golf was really perceived by VW as a genuine problem child. Maybe Dave can give some insight whether other PQ35 models had the same issues with doors.

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