It feels like every automaker has a core competency. General Motors’ is almost certainly the small block V8, Honda’s is front-wheel drive, and Porsche’s is the 911. Volkswagen’s core competency is the Golf. But looking closely at where the car’s going in its eighth generation, I’m starting to worry that VW’s star is slipping.
VW established itself with the humble Beetle and has even turned out some fancier finery like the Phaeton and CC. But as far as I’m concerned, the Golf has always been the German automaker’s true tentpole. Take any generation of Golf and it stacks up against its contemporaries as a cool, classy, and engaging competitor.
I could argue all day about how the Mk. VI and Mk. VII Golfs were the best Volkswagen products of all time and how the Mk. VII GTI was the best driving car you could buy for less than $60,000 and transcended class, fashion, and usability in a way that created something unique.
But now, I fear Volkswagen is coming dangerously close to ruining the car’s greatness with its latest iteration. Just look at photos of the cockpit and you can see it looks like the vehicle’s soul has been stripped as knobs, switches, and apparent build quality appear absent.
The Mk. VIII GTI we’re getting in the United States comes with haptic touch buttons for nearly every input on the car. No more physical controls, toggles, or even the fabulous Mk. VII HVAC controls with those small LED-backlit quadrants that represented fan speed. That’s all been consolidated into a single touch screen with a few haptic touch buttons that, according to Jason Cammisa, are no longer backlit.
After decades of Golf superiority, this is deeply concerning. What made a Golf (and some other VWs) a distinctly great product was the clear and evident effort spent on how you interact with the car. I bought and sold twelve different cars until I settled on my 2010 GTI. It does so many things right, it is never tiresome, and it always manages to feel like home. I fear that the Mk. VIII will no longer exhibit that X-factor Volkswagen-ness that made the brand so great. Those last remnants of Ferdinand Piëch’s allegedly obsessive-to-the-point-of-toxicity management style that forced Volkswagen to exit the dark years of the Mk. III and Mk. IV era Golf are finally disappearing, for the worse.
The Golf really has been VW’s great car for as long as it’s existed. In my opinion, the cars that really came close to out-cooling or out-engineering the Golf were the A1 (read: Golf)-based Scirocco with its beautiful Giorgietto Giugiaro body, and the Corrado, based on A2 (read: Mk. II Golf) especially improved for the SLC VR6 powered version. Maybe the PQ35 (modern Scirocco) too, but that was Euro only, and guess what, based on the Mk VI Golf. A case could be made for various iterations of the VW minibus as its coolest product, but when it comes to driving dynamics, you don’t find anyone arguing in favor of those as the company’s most impressive hardware.
Jettas and Passats sold in plenty-big quantities, but they don’t come close to the Golf for engagement or build quality. The Phaeton was a one-off vanity project by storied and feared auto exec Ferdinand Piëch and it doesn’t really count, though he is responsible for the VW renaissance of the mid-2000s through his “reign of terror” (Bob Lutz’s words, not mine) management style.
The SUVs are all derivatives of shared platforms, the ID.4 seems underwhelming as an EV, and the Eos… hard pass.
My point is that the only Volkswagen ever worth buying is the first seven generations of Golf. No other VW can compare to those cars in any meaningful way, not for the Golf’s magic mix of usability, quality, refinement, fuel economy, understated style, driving enjoyment, and performance. Most cars from other companies couldn’t hope to achieve what the Golf or GTI ever could. It seems like Volkswagen can’t do it anymore, either.
The one great thing VW always had going for it was the Golf. Even in its disappointing periods, it was still a somewhat interesting European hatchback with cool or tuneable engines and sturdy refinement. The Mk. VIII is shaping up to be a departure from this formula and there is nobody to blame but Volkswagen. The era of the great VW Golf might be over.