Model Rewind: The Golf

Volkswagen is about to reveal the eighth version of their most important car, the Golf. We’ve seen spy shots, exterior teases, and interior teases, and there may be some pretty dramatic changes to this model that has seen careful updating over the past 45 years. So before the sheet is pulled off, let’s take a quick look back at the history of this iconic model.

Mk1 1974 – 1984

For decades, Volkswagen looked for a model to replace its aging Type 1 Beetle. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of prototypes created. Execs struggled to pick between continuing to use air-cooled engines or transitioning to much more modern water-cooled units.

Eventually, the engineers and executives leveraged the front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout from the Auto Union line of cars they acquired in 1964. To help make this sea change from air to water-cooling, Volkswagen partnered with the now-famous Giorgetto Giugiaro and his ItalDesign firm. Giugiaro created an angular design for the new model that was influenced by origami.

When it debuted in May 1974, the new Golf, along with the Scirocco sports coupe, signaled to the world that the Volkswagen people had come to know was about to go down a new path. The small, water-cooled, front-engine, front-wheel drive, sharp-creased hatchback was a 180-degree turn.

Volkswagen opened the Westmoreland, PA production plant in 1978 to build Rabbits (as they were known in North America) locally and keep costs low. An unfortunate decision was made to “Americanize” the Rabbit by using softer suspension springs and lower-grade interior trim on early models. Buyers used to the high-quality Type 1 Beetle scoffed at the “lesser” Rabbits and upgrades were made in 1983.

The MK1 Golf was in production for 10 years. During its run, it received a host of gas and diesel engines, minor styling tweaks, and equipment upgrades. There were convertible and curious front-wheel-drive pickup versions. Production of the MK1 Golf continued through 1987 in Mexico (although it was called the Caribe), and, believe it or not, 2009 in South Africa (there called the CitiGolf).

Mk2 1984 – 1992

The second-generation Golf debuted at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 1983. This all-new model took the proven formula and improved on it. Volkswagen dropped the “Rabbit” name to align names across all markets. Wheelbase, track, length, and height all grew, moving the Golf from the subcompact to the compact category. The new model was more luxurious than the first-gen model: engineers improved noise, vibration, and harshness, and the longer wheelbase made the ride a bit smoother.

The styling was distinctive, but not quite as distinctive as the Mk1’s. Designers rounded out some of the edges and created a more aerodynamic shape. Early Golfs had sealed beam headlights, but later moved to the flush “aero” headlights shared with the Jetta and GTI. One of the most distinctive design elements is the triangular rear taillights, positioned much higher on the body than on the Rabbit.

All North American Golfs came with either a 1.8-liter gasoline engine, or a 1.6-liter diesel engine, and 4-speed, 5-speed, or automatic transmissions were available. A Mk2 convertible was never built–the Mk1 Cabriolet soldiered on until 1992. A Mk2 Golf pickup also never appeared, the infamous Chicken Tax kept that from happening. There was a Golf GT that used all the GTI trim (redline bumpers, alloy wheels, blacked-out bits) but still used a standard 1.8-liter engine under the hood, a bit like today’s R-Line models. There were many variations of the Golf in Europe including the Rallye Golf and the Golf Country.

Mk2 Golfs for the North American market continued to be built at Westmoreland, but the Rabbit and Golf never met the sales volume that Volkswagen expected, and the plant was shuttered in 1987 and production moved to Puebla, Mexico. But in Europe, people were scooping up Golfs left and right.

Mk3 1994 – 1998

While the Mk3 Golf went on sale in Europe in 1991, production delays and labor issues kept the third generation from appearing in North America until 1993 as 1994 model-year cars.

The Golf once again grew in all directions allowing more passenger and cargo room. The interior was more upscale with nicely grained plastic, and plush seat fabrics. The Mk3 also saw the birth of the venerable 2.0L fuel-injected engine. You could get a 5-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic.

An all-new convertible arrived, but the name was shortened to simply “Cabrio.” If you come across an early MK3 GTI, beware: these were merely 3-door Golfs with sporty trim. A true GTI would return later in the model run.

One very fun, and very strange, MK3 model we must mention was the Golf Harlequin. While we may view Germans as rather stoic, they have some frivolity in them. After success with body-panel-swapped models in Europe, a Volkswagen executive made the curious decision to bring a similar model to the United States. Golfs were built in four colors, the body panels were unbolted, then reassembled to make multiple-colored cars. A specific sequence was used so there are four versions of the Harlequin, and the main color is denoted by the shell/rocker panel/C pillar/roof color. These Golfs were not at all popular and languished on dealer lots. One Georgia dealership collected enough cars to reassemble one-color cars.

Mk4 1999 – 2005

The fourth-generation saw huge changes for Golf. In addition to once again moving up in size, it also moved up in cachet. Engineers and designers pulled out all the stops and created an upscale small car. Most notable was the interior design and materials. Low-gloss, soft-touch plastic covered all surfaces. Cloth and leather were very high-quality and luxurious. Buttons and trim pieces were covered in a silicone-like “skin” that felt warm to the touch. Bins, binnacles, and grab handles were dampened and operated like those in high-end cars.

In addition to the interior improvements, the Mk4 Golf featured distinctive styling. Panels and cut lines merged into one another well, and the entire Bauhaus-inspired design was incredibly cohesive, upscale, and distinctive while still being understated.

A number of new engines were introduced: the 2.0-liter carried over, the 1.8T was the first turbocharged gasoline engine to be offered in a Golf, and a new 1.9-liter TDI diesel engine was available.

A Mk4-based Cabrio did not appear (the Cabrio received an extensive update to look more like the MK4 Golf), but the Europe-only Golf Variant (station wagon) did come to North America, but with the Jetta nose and name.

We can’t leave the Mk4 era without mentioning the R32. This “monster Golf” featured the 3.2L VR6 engine mated to a manual transmission with power going to all four wheels. While it was intended to be a Europe-only model, discussions with enthusiasts convinced VW execs to produce 5000 models to be sold over two years. They sold out in 13 months.

Mk5/6 2006 – 2014

We’re lumping the fifth and sixth generation together here as the Mk6 is a substantially updated Mk5. And for the fifth generation, the Rabbit name returned to the U.S. The Rabbit name only returned for a few years though.

There were some significant changes to the Golf for this new generation. To start, all previous engine options were nixed. The only engine at launch was the 2.5-liter 150HP 5-cylinder engine. Later in its production run, the 5-cylinder made 170HP. Buyers could choose from a 5-speed manual or 6-speed Tiptronic automatic.

Styling was also a big change; the Golf adopted a very curvy shape with a canted-back windshield. Many viewed the design as being similar to Japanese cars of that era. The interior also received criticism as the plastics and trim were considerably downgraded from the Mk4 models.

When the Rabbit was updated in 2010, the Golf name returned. As did a diesel engine option. The interior also received a substantial upgrade to return it to Mk4 standards. The front and rear fascias got a nip and tuck, and new wheel designs helped elevate the car again. The Golf Variant returned again, but as the Jetta SportWagen (please note the spelling).

And we can’t forget the 300HP all-wheel-drive Golf R made it to North American soil as a full-production model (vs. the limited production R32). Gone was the VR6 engine, but in its place was the K04 turbocharged 4-cylinder. The front-end weight reduction made the R more nimble than its predecessor.

Mk7 2015 – 2019

At first glance, the current Golf looks like a freshened version of the MK6. But utter the letters “MQB” to any Golf lover, and they’ll berate you with accolades. You see, Volkswagen engineers created a new manufacturing process that streamlined a huge number of elements in the unibody, and grouped a number of components together to allow them to build any MQB-based model on any assembly line at any time. This flexibility would allow them to flex capacity at their plants based on market demands, and, in theory, build niche cars more affordably.

But MQB is more than a production process, it also yields an incredibly rigid and relatively lightweight unibody structure that helps create a very responsive chassis. In 2015, the MK7 Golf family was named the Motor Trend Car of the Year. Reviewers heaped praise on the zippy 1.8T engine, the sharp handling, and the upscale interior. The 2018 Golf received a minor styling update, and the 1.8T engine was replaced by the 1.4T.

The Golf R again got enthusiasts’ hearts racing. The MQB “chassis” gave the newest R exceptional handling, and the performance was on-par with cars costing substantially more.

Curiously, the Golf Variant once again returned, but instead of being labeled a Jetta, we had a Golf station wagon in North America. And VW made the bold choice to make 4MOTION all-wheel-drive available on even base SportWagens.

But perhaps the boldest decision was to bring the Golf Alltrack to market. VW execs were tired of seeing faithful buyers move to the Subaru Outback when they wanted something for their active lifestyles, so they copied the formula. The Alltrack featured standard 4MOTION all-wheel-drive, a raised suspension, and chunky body cladding. Television ads showed the Alltrack fording small streams and climbing up rough terrain. To top all that off, buyers had the choice of the DSG transmission or the 6-speed manual on all trim levels.

Mk8 2020 –

So were hours away from the big reveal. Rumors point to the newest Golf being a technology leader in the segment. And it’s styling could take some inspiration from the I.D.3. But our biggest question is: will we get the MK8 Golf in the United States? While Canada will see the newest model, a final decision has not been made for the States. We know we will get the MK8 GTI and Golf R, but a 2020 hatch, wagon, and Alltrack are all up in the air.

While it would be sad to see this model go away, the reality is cars are being shoved aside in favor of CUVs/SUVs. And hatchbacks are fairing even worse than standard sedans. Perhaps there’s a market for a new Golf in America, only the marketing people in Herndon know for sure.