What if the Golf wasn’t the average car?
Editor’s note: This piece originally dates from 2 May 2014.
It is always useful to consider a counterfactual. For example, by asking what would have happened if the Archduke, Franz Ferdinand had survived his assassination attempt, we ask about how avoidable the first World War was. Another counterfactual might be to ask what if REM had disbanded after their drummer Bill Berry retired? That is to ask what was the importance of Bill Berry to the band. The answer to that second question is easier than the first. REM should have disbanded. Berry’s drumming was as integral as Michael Stipe’s vocals.
About two decades ago in the US, the Ford Taurus held a very strong position at the top of a market dominated by family cars. Chances were that if you bought an estate car it was a Taurus, and if you didn’t buy a Taurus you certainly would have thought about it. But the world changed. First the Taurus was deposed as best-seller. Well, I say deposed, Ford fumbled this one and the 1996 design lost droves of customers.
Then the market changed too and families wanted taller cars, bigger, more off-roadie vehicles. But in 1994 to ask ‘what if the Taurus wasn’t a best-seller’ might have been as difficult a question as asking now what if the VW Golf was just another car, like the Mitsubishi Lancer or Renault Mégane. Anyone who could have imagined then what it would take to depose the Taurus was probably getting well paid to find something even closer to the market sweet-spot than the Taurus was.
In this spirit, today I am posing the question about a world where the VW Golf was not the median car. As it happens a useful post here offers some insight. The VW Golf is the median car, so the chart shows. It outsells every other single car in its category and on its own makes up 10% or so of its market. We take this for granted, I would suggest. If asked to picture a car, it seems likely that many people would picture something Golf-like. Every big manufacturer wants to be in this sector. I expect Ferrari would do well to offer a car with a Golf-type package. It would sell, as the truth is a Ferrari is miles away from useful. A Golf is in every measurable way a better product.
This leads me to a tangent. Some researchers in Denmark spent time and money asking people what they wanted from an electric car. There were focus groups, drawings, little models and all that paraphernalia designers use to get at people’s views and wishes. The answer of course is that people want an electric car that does everything a Golf can, only that it runs on electricity.
To return to the main point, were the Golf to totter from its perch as top dog, there would have to be a big [“seismic” in journalese] change in the market’s demands. The Golf has lost sales due to competition in some years, yes, but facelifts and new models are always able to keep it competitive.
What the Golf could not cope with is a reduction in our need for a usefully–sized, reasonably priced, nicely made, quite pleasant and fairly practical car. That is the only silver bullet that could deep six the Golf. There are cars that are bigger, cheaper, more practical and better made but none of them do all of this at once. And we don’t seem to want to want something a bit other when it comes to our family car.
It is hard to think of people not needing so many Golf-like vehicles. Thinking of a world where the Golf was not the ur-car is like trying to imagine a new colour. People would have to want to move either more things or fewer things. Families would have to be either much bigger or smaller. Perhaps if people suddenly wanted something, anything, that was more extrovert could the VW lose out to other competitors but they’d still be Golf-like underneath. Even a change in preference from five door to saloon is hard to imagine but would also make little difference to the essential nature of the median car.
To beat the Golf is the task of a generation: you need time, and you need a car that offers incremental improvements in all the main areas the Golf is optimised for. Chop 4% off the price, improve quality by a noticeable amount, reduce fuel consumption and improve performance. Maybe make it bit bigger.
Hard to imagine? But there is already a firm out there working on a car to beat the Golf and it’s called VW.
45 thoughts on “If All the World Were Paper and All the Sea Were Ink…”
Since writing this I have had some further thoughts. The lines these followed related to what other type of car could have been the default car in Europe. If cultural values were different, a two-door car of the hatchback, saloon or estate could have been a contender. Let´s say people bought a car bearing in mind that they usually drive alone: why then have two extra doors. And bearing in mind people have families to transport for only one quarter of their lives (maybe less) then it could be that a five door hatch could be viewed as we view MPVs in actuality. That is, you only would buy a five door hatch if you had a family and as soon as the kids had grown up, you´d return to two-door life as soon as possible.
I read here http://bestsellingcarsblog.com/1974/01/ that the Ford Cortina was the UK´s best-selling car and what was it but a two door saloon. The Beetle was a best-seller in Germany in 1970-1973 but so too were the Opel Kadett and the Opel Ascona. The Kadett was a two-door saloon and the Ascona a saloon in two or four door format.
Two-door sedans sold well the world over in the years prior to child-restraint laws; back then four doors came in handy if you had secondary-aged kids who were or soon would be reaching their full height but wouldn’t have their own cars for a while. So that’s one car in a lifetime.
Looking at the Netherlands I’d say the Volkswagen Up!, Peugeot 108, Citroën C1 and Toyota Aygo are pretty much everywhere, more so than anything Golf-like. The last three of them are discontinued and I am not sure how bright the future is for the Up!
More Cortinas were 4-door rather than 2 door, at least from the Mk.2 onwards, and rare by the last Cortina ’80 version even when they were current.
I might add that until the appearence of that gizmo that allows the rear doors only to be opened from the outside, every 4 door car was unsafe to children.
In the early seventies my father bought our mk1 escort in 2 door form for that only reason.
More discerning friends of him bought 2 door Fiat 128, the more conservative bought an opel kadett, those more rational bought corollas or sunnys.
The more well off bought bmws 1602 or 2002.
But allways with 2 Doors, affraid their Kids could unlock the locking mechanism.
Even when they had 3 Kids to fit in the back seat
Gustavo, I have to disagree with you. 4-door cars are not unsafe.
My parents’ first car was a BMW 600 (I know, wrong example, it only had 2, and both in the wrong place) – and I’m still alive.
4-doors are no more unsafe than 2-doors. Parents are insecure about their upbringing of their children. So they go (they went) the easy and convenient way: if there are no doors you don’t have to explain to the kids why it’s a stupid idea to open the doors while driving.
We should slowly get rid of the idea that parents like to educate their children. Educating children is a hard, rocky road.
Having only two doors is simply making that arduous, rocky road seem less arduous and rocky for a brief moment. I can understand those parents.
But I thank mine for taking the trouble to teach me a few things. Maybe I have survived so far (also) thanks to their foundations – I don’t know.
I think Gustavo is saying that others considered the four-door less safe for kids than a 2 door. It´s not a view I have heard expressed though. Still, Gustavo´s simply having a guess at other people´s attitudes. Before safety belt laws it was easy to put a kid in the back and drive off. I can speak from experience that safety belts plus child seats plus small cost centres means a four door is preferable, just for access. The door can be child locked also (that innovation was not around though until…. anyone?)
It varies with countries. In Australia four door saloons have always been more popular than two doors – well, my memory goes back to the sixties, and I can extrapolate back to the fifties based on what I saw as a child; more Prefects than Anglias, for example. Automotive sociologists (if there is such a tribe) might ponder why that is so. Yes the Beetle certainly was popular up until the mid sixties, but you saw very few two door Cortinas (mostly police cars), and they only offered them in Mks. 1 and 2, then gave up on that body style.
But in a rare (for them) marketing faux pas Toyota never sold the Corolla here as a four door until the mid seventies, by which time they were getting their clock cleaned by (successively) Datsun’s 1000, 1200 and 120Y, with Mazda also willing to cater to the small-four-door buyer.
We see the same thing with hatchbacks; the five door way outsells the three. Ease of access usually trumps implied sportiness or a lower price.
That´s a good answer, I am embarrassed to admit. I can now see Mr and Mrs 1975 opening the front doors of their 2-door Granada and sending four children to sit, unrestrained on the vinyl back seat. Mr 1975 then starts up the Cologne V6, fires up his Rothmans and off they go from Lübeck to Aachen to visit the grandparents.
I spend plenty of time in the backseat of an E21 and after that a two door E30. Both had cloth seats and rear seat belts; we always buckled up. Luckily my parents were non-smokers. Happy memories.
I suspect many of those children in the back of two-door cars in the seventies grew up determined to have four doors when they could afford a car of their own. My folks stuck with the two format until well after I had got my first job ( two-doors were cheaper) and as a teen you do get heartily sick of not being able to get in or out until someone allows you to do so. Maybe it was character building, though!
Growing up as a kid in northern Sweden in the 80’s, very few of our neighbours had entirely new cars, most were five ten year old.
In our family we had a fifteen year old Volvo Duett two door station wagon and a ten year old Renault 4. When may parents had heard enough scorn about their old cars they changed up to a new W123 Mercedes 240D, that’ll keep ’em quiet.
My best friends family was a Ford family, they always had a couple of scrap cars in the yard. They had a ’72 Consul Coupe, the one with the coke bottle figure and probably a V4. After that they had a ’73 Taunus TC Coupe with the 2.3 V6 and automatic gearbox, bright yellow and with perspex roof. Because having sporty pretensions was more important to them than practicality. They only acquired a four door car when their kids was well up in their teens, a Mk II Granada with the 2.8 and auto as well, I remember it because it was black with tinted windows.
Another friends father moved Up from the pretend shooting break Toyota Corolla Liftback with the lethargic 1.2 to a four cylinder B2 Audi 80. That was exhanged only after a couple of years to a five cylinder Volkswagen Santana, the latter two cars probably company leases. Oh yeah, they had a mother in law Daf 33 that the wife later inherited as “her” car.
Another his and her car was “his” Volvo 245 and “her” Volkswagen beetle, later exchanged for a VW Golf. His car always parked on the paved driveway inside the white picket fence and her car parked on the street outside of the fence. Like “her” car wasn’t nice enough to be parked inside. I remember them because they were the only ones that I knew of that had a paved driveway.
My Swedish textbook from long ago taught me that Swedish people had two cars, a ‘statusbil’ and a ‘slängbil’. I liked those names.
All I want is a car that looks like a Mk7 Golf (definitely not the Mk8) but with electric power. In other words, an attractive version of the ID3, that looks like a real car with a real dashboard.
I have a Golf Mk7 R. I’m single and usually drive alone but I had no choice but to have the 5 door as 3 door Mk7 Golfs were only offered in Australia in limited numbers as a GTI.
However what is far worse than having to put up with 2 extra doors I don’t need, is coming across a report stating that VW is considering developing the Mk9 Golf as a crossover. That is a nauseating prospect. VW already have the Tiguan , T Roc, T Cross and goodness knows what else
When I was single I got my E92. I definitely wanted a coupé. Partly because I prefer the body style and partly when I turn my head I don’t want to be looking at a B-pillar. For that reason alone I’d get a 3-door Golf, but like you said, we don’t have that choice, at least not in the Netherlands. I am in a relationship now, but I hope to keep my Bimmer for a lot longer.
I feel like a dinosaur, but it’s hard for me to give up on my straight six. Every time I start it I have the door or window open, just to hear it come to live. I’ve driven a few electric cars. The’re fine and everything, but I have no pleasure in driving them.
Oh, the demise of the three door hatch. We´ve seen the two door roadster more or less vanish; saloons are confined to smaller markets (this is a confusing situation); the MPV seems to have retreated to a niche; the sub-b and B-class hatches are now all five doors. Isn´t this just plain strange – why did people even want 3 door hatches if they were so useless? There´s an answer in this but it´s not far off folk psychology rather than something like a natural science law.
Only yesterday I admired the fun form of a Mk1 Focus in metallic green. And I did happen to set eyes on a BMW 218 coupé which I really found attractive. I don´t suppose many people want this now, fun though it looks.
There is, I think, a case to be made that car makers have found the Golf plus 5% formula, and guess what? It turns out to be a crossover. Whatever real differences there were between an SUV and a hatchback are gradually being whittled away. Powertrains? The same. Dashboard and interior fittings? In many cases, largely the same. Number of driven wheels? Don’t make me laugh! Of course they’re the same. Even the styling has been converging, so the the crossover and its related hatch (I ordered thosectwo that way deliberately) have more in common than not. What we are left with is essentially the same car, but with a somewhat taller form factor and larger overhangs.
Now, I’m going to commit heresy here, so sit down and take a deep breath, folks: I don’t personally want one, but I can see why people prefer the crossover/SUV form factor. Those extra few centimetres of height make for less bending putting stuff in the boot, or strapping kids into their child seats. Once you’re actually inside, the (slightly) more upright and (slightly) wider body doesn’t actually offer that much more space, but that space is more usably shaped. Yes, there’s a cost in fuel burn and driving dynamics terms, but until very recent events changed things, Europeans hadn’t cared about energy security or efficiency since the eighties. (I always found that a bit odd.) And most people can’t articulate what they like or don’t like about a car’s driving behaviour, let alone prioritise it in their leasing decisions.
Having said all that, I will attempt to regain what credibility I ever had here by pointing out I don’t personally want a crossover. Their takeover depresses me slightly because they are driving out the cars might one day want to drive, so I suppose I will be stuck with one eventually…
Maybe one can add another cause for the crossover popularity: the ageing of the european population – worst in some countries than others – gives the crossover an aditional advantage when getting in/ getting out.
Also, security concerns may influence decisions: once someone started feeling safer while riding higher, everybody gradually feels unsafer when riding lower.
And finally, and completely out of the blue: I wonder if the crossover is the mix of that most practical but unsexy high riding format, the medium sized mpv, with the ‘rough sexyness’ of the 4×4 image.
To put it short : I am old / I have 3 Kids to fit inside / I feel insecure riding lower – but the image I show to the society is that I am entering the next Paris Dakar.
Am I being too rude?…
Gustavo is on the money here: older people like a higher H-point. I can bang my old drum here and say Ford were way ahead of the curve with the Fusion which offered Fiesta-ness for people with less flexible joints, weaker muscles and poorer mobbility (but aimed it at people able to skysurf and cross-country bunjee running). It was a brilliant bit of work and its amazing it didn´t at least lead to further development of the idea.
Isn’t it interesting how the automotive scene has moved on since this piece was originally written? The Golf is, of course, still an important car in VW’s line-up, but it faces internal competition from the Tiguan SUV and ID3 EV. Here are some comparative European sales data:
Total sales of the three models in 2021 was 419,393 units. The Golf and Tiguan together sold 674,370 units in 2014. VW’s European share has slipped from 12.41% to 10.83% over the same period. The ID.3 may still be finding its commercial feet but the decline in sales of the Tiguan in a still growing market segment must be concerning for VW.
Incidentally, I’ve only just realised that the Golf is only now available in five-door form.
Finding a two or three door car is virtually impossible now. A friend is looking for one and the choice seems to be the Toyota Yaris GTIXYZ thingy or the 2 series BM, neither of which would be on his list if doors weren’t an issue.
I suspect it is partly to do with raising prices by stealth by deleting the cheaper options in the range, without changing the price of the “Headline” model.
It´s disconcerting when stuff I wrote makes a return appearance and I realise almost a decade has shot by. Erk.
On the subject of “2-doors versus 4-doors”, there was recently an interesting piece of intra-marital theatre here. (I have to say that both our cars are 2-doors. I’m a 2-door guy, and the best-wife-of-all doesn’t care, she sits in the passenger seat anyway and the chauffeur she married sits behind the wheel to her left).
On the way, a Citroen C1 (the 4-door version) was parked next to us at the traffic lights and I told my wife that if our Y “should go belly up one day” it would be a fun alternative. However, if I’m informed correctly, you can’t open the rear windows on the 2-door, the 4-door at least has opening windows on the rear doors. To which the wife replied: “4-door would be better anyway”.
“Well, it’s more practical.”
Expecting another unbeatable argument, I waited and remained silent.
“… It’s easier to put the shopping bag on the back seat.” (Here you have to imagine an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence).
“Does it really make a big difference whether you open the rear door now or the tailgate?” (I know, wrong answer. Never give a woman rational reasons).
“Well, if someone drives with us along, it’s easier to get in the back.”
“When was the last time someone rode with us? Three years ago? Four? And who was in the back seat?”
“Well, was it difficult to sit in the back seat?”
“No, not really. It’s not like I’m a frail old woman.”
“And with a 4-door, the front doors are always a bit narrower, so you don’t get in and out as comfortably as we do.” After a moment’s thought, I decided to unpack the ultimate overkill argument: “Besides, a 4-door just looks stodgy.”
Whereupon the woman gave me that special look that was supposed to say `Man, you suck’, and she searched her memories for that reason why she had married me in the first place.
End of the first act.
(I wondered afterwards what had possessed the playwright and the director to put on this play. Because why should the Y be broken. Completely absurd. And even if it did, only then would it be decided what to buy as a replacement).
The next day, a C1 was parked next to us as a 2-door, and the 2-door guy in me went crazy: “Look, that’s this Citroen C1 as a 2-door”.
To which my beloved passenger replied: “It looks better as a 2-door, but the colour sucks.”
Fred, you made my day. Never give the wife a rational answer.
It may just be early in the AM, but I’m with Michael here. While Golf is a great car, I don’t see them quite so much, rather the world here looks to be a sea of SUVs and crossovers, in the great American midwest. I don’t care for them, although they aren’t bad to get in/out of. Maybe someday they’ll all go away.
For whatever reason, Volkswagen has enjoyed a much better reputation for build quality and reliability in Europe than they have in the United States. Couple that with a relatively far-flung network of dealers for a brand that traditionally has not responded quickly or even positively to American car-buyers’ preferences and VW’s presence, especially in the American Midwest, has been far below what it could have been.
I’m not sure what I would nominate today as the American ur-car. The Taurus was it in the pre-SUV/CUV era but the Ford Explorer and Escape never grabbed that mantle. I think if I were to nominate I would go for either the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra (which, together, outsell the Ford F-150) or, to go with something that has an actual human scale, the Honda CR-V.
The 2 door Granada saloon mentioned was never sold in the UK while the Mark 3 Cortina in its last years and the Mark 4 only came as 2 door in poverty spec. Even the later “sporty” GT and S were 4 door only. This trend preceded the universal use of child car seats- was it a consequence of nutritional changes causing increased height then, later, breadth so that people could no longer squeeze through a front door into the back seat with ease?
The French in their genius sorted out the issue of rear passenger access via the front doors with the Renault Avantime and Peugeot 1007. There were of course downsides…..
William: good answer. I think it is also wealth. The two door car used to be the norm or standard as it must have been cheaper to make than something with 1232 extra bits. The two door hung around as a base model and reversed position as the sportier version (think of later versions of the Megane and Astra three doors). Too few people want an overtly sporty car. To their credit, Ford, Renault and Opel did try.
The 1007 was a clever car. I didn´t rate it at the time. Now I think it´s cute in a Suzuki way. The Avantime was peerless, a future money-accumulator like the SM is.
The miserable sales numbers of the Golf VIII are the consequence of what would be the answer to the question how you could kill such a car: make a former purchasing director your CEO and watch him bring out perfectly wrong products.
The Golf VIII hits an unexpectedly heavy resistance in the market because it is a big step in the wrong direction in terms of product quality (can’t they remember the disastrous reception of the Golf V and the quality problems of Golf III) and because potential buyers don’t accept its idiotic user interface with touch panels instead of proper switches.
If rumours are right there will be an initially unplanned update to improve product quality similar to the transmogrification of Golf V to VI.
The Golf of today is the Qashqai (this is were the coming Toyota Corolla Cross is targeting) and the Polo is the nissan Juke / Yaris Cross.
This is what everyone is buying.
Unfortunately I don’t remember the VW equivalent models.
The only 3door I currently like is the BMW 2 series.
Not that there is much of an offer in the segment anyway.
I don’t know if you can fit some kids in the back though…
The only 2 door I like is the F22 2 series, and the only car that I would pay a premium for over my Golf. Sadly, like previous comments, not much choice.
The replacement G42 stylistically is not easy on these eyes.
The fact that something like the Nissan Juke (or should i sat Puke) sells and is into its second generation shows the automotive word is going to hell in a handbasket. We might as well make the jump to autonomous cars now….
Regarding the Juke, the Toyota I can’t remember the name of and a maybe a couple of others, I see them in a different way:
The Juke and the Toyota use some kind of ‘Transformers’ visual language that makes them on a subconscious level to be regarded like toys.
They are not to be taken seriously, I feel. They are, I guess, bought by those who like to laugh or smile when they look at it.
I would drive one of those, but no other crossover
When live in the world we do – covid, war, etc – laughing at your car is good for your health
A Golf will take a family anywhere they want to go. With a Jetta, they could take overnight or holiday luggage too! I never did regard the Golf as any kind of default choice, although the Mk1 was epic, and the Mk4 was – and still is – hard to walk past without stopping to admire the detailing.
Now I’m not the type to buy a Golf, I’d probably prefer the Italian style (and if only unsightly products were available from that country, I’d have to look to France), but I fully agree with your statement.
You are not disagreeing with me, you are disagreeing with my parents and their friends …
Mind you, I never obstructed the power sockets at home when my son started to move around home.
But all things are not equal. I am talking about families with three children aged 1-2-3 or 2-3-4 years old, fighting each other on the back seat during 6 hours of driving trough badly paved roads, in underpowered and overloaded cars doing dificult and stressfull overtakings.
With no rear safety belts, let alone safety chairs.
On these conditions, knowing at least the kids were inside the car was one concern less you had to deal with.
On the other hand, and now to a completely different matter: until say the mid 70’s, rallye cars were visually very similar to road cars.
And all of them had 2 doors.
I wonder if…
Re 5-door cars, rather than 2 or 3-door cars, I blame Citroën.
Interestingly (?) thinking about ‘national cars’, the 2CV was only ever a 4-door, as was the Renault 4, while the beetle was only ever a 2-door, as was the Fiat 500. The Morris Minor hedged its bets.
Speaking of hedging bets, when MPVs were popular, Volkswagen introduced the Golf Plus alongside the regular model. I wonder if they’ll do a ‘dual model’ introduction, again, if they are thinking of introducing the MK9 Golf as a crossover, as mentioned above.
Or perhaps more likely, the Golf could be a crossover, with the ID.3 being a more ‘traditional’ choice, from a body style point of view. However, don’t think the ID.3 currently cuts the mustard, so perhaps the Golf will continue in hybrid-engined form, in future.
Whatever happened to Ford? Have they taken their ball home?
Indeed. Autocropley reports the imminent demise of the Focus as we know it. There´s something else being offered which is not too far from the median car.
Ford has managed better than GM in Europe but neither company is a good reflection of old school N American industrial philosophy. Ford is probably more held back by the country it operates from; Ford Europe really ought to be allowed to get a divorce from Ford USA so it can make the cars it really wants. GM is just a basket case
Is it an example of decisions based on leasing? With an outright purchase, someone might question how often they actually use the rear doors if it’s an extra £500; if it’s a minor addition to the monthly cost, sign me up. If rates are based on residuals, and those of the 5-door are predicted to be better, then there’s every chance that the 3-door might actually be costlier to lease anyway?
The mk1 Aygo/C1/107 seemed unusual in that the front doors were the same length regardless of whether the car had rear doors. This probably helped with costs, but surely must have limited ease of access to the rear?
The 3-door non-coupe marketdoes seem small now: aside from the Up, I think that just leaves the Mini, and the Fiat/Abarth 500. Also the Smart Fortwo if the rear seats aren’t required either, and perhaps an honourable mention to the halfway-house BMW i3 (which may just have finished production).
Hello Tom, yes – the i3 has finished production after 9 years. I think it’s even more fresh and relevant than ever. Just imagine – BMW’s first serious electric vehicles were a compact car and a sports car. It all seems very idealistic, now and I think they paid a penalty for being among the early entrants to the segment. Wired have done a nice tribute to the i3.
Now I’ve never visited Europe (I’m an Aussie) and I’m getting something of an alternative-universe vibe here re the popularity of the Golf. Down here it’s something of an ‘also-ran’; the Japanese and Koreans reign supreme. At one stage my Mazda 3 was the top-selling vehicle…
I no longer drive these days, and it’s been several years since I stopped getting the motoring monthlies, but I looked up the current top ten selling vehicles in Australia, and got something of a shock:
Only two ‘cars’ in the top ten, and they’re probably mostly in hatchback form. The rest are pickups (many dual cab 4WD diesels) and crossovers. Golf? Don’t think anyone in my town has one, and I haven’t seen one for a year or two.
For anyone who needs a rabbit-hole to get lost in, here’s the top 100 vehicles sold here last year.