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.