The Volkswagen Golf: 42 Years at the Top, and Counting

It’s not often that a carmaker gets the formula for a model so right that its production run reaches over 40 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Up until that point Volkswagen’s ‘go to’ small family car was the Beetle. Imagine, then, the wholescale change in the very philosophy of what VW was producing by switching from an air-cooled rear engine design to a water-cooled, front engine, front-wheel-drive setup.

Mk1 – and the first GTI

The Mk1 Golf has unquestionably achieved iconic status across not only Dub fans, but the wider motoring scene in general. Launched back in 1974 to a great deal of fanfare, it was immediately apparent that the dross it shared its segment with – such as the Allegro and Viva – couldn’t compete with it. Bringing a 1.5-litre diesel to the party, with performance not far off that of the 1.1-litre petrol version, essentially created a whole new class of car which has since gone on to dominate the market.

Volkswagen Golf - erste Generation

Of course that’s all nice and worthy, but it was in 1976 that the Golf really hit the mark with the first GTI – another new class of car created by the Mk1. It was a simple recipe that worked so insanely well that any carmaker worth its salt today has a hot hatch in its range. Of course rather than the 250hp+ expected today, the Mk1’s 110hp combined with its 810kg curb weight meant that in its day it was plenty quick enough. And like its non-GTI brother, it was a flying success, contributing to the 6.99 million Mk1s sold.

Der Volkswagen Ur GTI Pirelli von 1983

Mk2 – for many, the best GTI

In 1983 VW revealed the Mk2 Golf. Slightly larger but with the original’s Giugiaro DNA still obvious, the Mk2 was bound for success from the beginning. The same, well-loved practicality as a properly put together people mover remained, but everything about the Mk2 was incrementally better (one of each new Golf’s defining features). New versions of the Golf expanded its horizons too, with the Syncro offering four-wheel-drive and a turbodiesel unit dramatically improving diesel’s viability for the car.

Volkswagen Golf ? zweite Generation

For many, too, the Mk2 GTI is the one to have. In either 8v (110hp) or 16v (137hp) form it is extremely well thought of with big-bumper models selling for good money nowadays. And just as it had expanded the range of standard cars, VW pushed performance Golfs into new territory. The Rallye took the Syncro’s four-wheel-drive setup and combined it with the 161hp G60 8v supercharged lump, while in 1989 the Limited took things that little bit further. It packed a supercharged 16v engine and were tuned to deliver 207hp, making it the most powerful Golf until 2003.

Golf GTI 1989

Mk3 – the weak spot?

1991 saw the release of the third generation Golf and once again VW was trying new things with it. Whilst it shared the same wheelbase and basic setup as the Mk2, the new styling had softened the lines. An estate was offered for the first time and the cabrio, which had until this point been based on the Mk1, took on the form of the Mk3.

Volkswagen Golf ? dritte Generation

The GTI had by this point broken the 1,000kg barrier, though a 2-litre 16v engine introduced in 1993 did up power to 150hp, giving the Mk3 respectable performance. Perhaps more interesting was the introduction of six-cylinder engines on the model in the shape of the narrow-angle VR6 unit. The mainstay of this unit was the 2.8-litre version which produced 174hp and 173 ft lb, giving the Golf a 0-60 time of 7.6 seconds. Between 1994 and 1997 a 2.9-litre VR6 was available, pushing performance further still.

Golf GTI 1991

Mk4 – Going Upmarket

VW introduced the Mk4 in 1997 and it was obvious from the outset that it was bigger overall, and plusher inside than previous variants. Across the board there was ‘more’ about the car – more equipment, more safety and security features and more power. The Mk4 also came in cabriolet form, however this shared a significant proportion of its underpinnings with the Mk3, despite its outward appearance. An estate completed the standard range.

Volkswagen Golf - vierte Generation

On the performance side, VW offered a wide spread of options for anyone wishing to get a Golf with a GTI badge attached. The entry level car was a naturally aspirated 2-litre producing just 115hp, and widely viewed as a bit of an interloper in the GTI range. Turbocharging was brought in for the first time to create two additional GTIs with more acceptable power outputs with the 1.8 T producing 148hp between 1998 and 2001, and 177hp between 2001 and the car’s replacement. A VR5 joined the range (effectively a VR6 with a cylinder lopped off the end) while the VR6 (with a power hike) remained. The ultimate Mk4 was the R32, which packed a 3.2-litre V6 offering up 237hp and 240 lb ft.

Produkte Golf GTI 132 kW 180 PS 2001

Mk5 – Yet more Incremental Improvements

The Mk5 was launched in 2003, hitting the road in 2004. Its design was revised inside and out, and the chassis tuned to not only improve ride and handling, but also to create a platform more befitting of the performance versions. Engines were completely revised including new twin-charged TSI units and fuel stratified injection ‘FSI’ units. Diesels were also improved through the use of direct injection and variable-vane turbos for a broader spread of performance.

Volkswagen Golf ? fünfte Generation

New GT variants in both petrol and diesel form (each with 168hp) closed the gap between the ‘vanilla’ standard range and GTI, which now sported a turbocharged 2-litre lump pushing out 197hp. Aiding performance significantly was the introduction of VW’s direct-shift gearbox (DSG) – brand new technology at the time. A special 30th anniversary edition of the GTI added 30hp onto the standard car’s power as well as visual and mechanical enhancements. It was allegedly faster in some conditions than the heavier four-wheel-drive 247hp R32.

Mk6 – More than a Facelift

Based on the same PQ35 platform as its predecessor, the Mk6 was effectively a re-skinned and lightly reengineered version of the Mk5. Its creation was driven in part by the need to reduce production costs at the plant. Safety enhancements, such as seven airbags and ESP as standard, gave the Mk6 a five star Euro NCAP rating, while a taller ‘Golf Plus’ was created, offering more interior room.

Volkswagen Golf - sechste Generation

Power from the GTI’s 2-litre TSI motor was now up to 209hp and to celebrate the 35th anniversary of GTI, the GTI 35 was launched, offering up 233hp (235ps). Taking performance Golfs to a new level and replacing the VR6 was the Golf R which took the GTI’s engine to another level. Stronger innards, a lower compression ratio, uprated fuel system and a larger turbo came together to produce 267hp and 260 lb ft. Combined with VW’s Haldex 4-motion system and a DSG gearbox, the R could hit 60 in 5.5 seconds and go on to a top speed limited to 155mph.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Mk7 – All change

VW’s Mk7 Golf was a total redesign from the ground up. Now based on the VW Group MBQ platform it was longer and wider than its predecessor, yet was claimed to be up to 100kg lighter. The proportions were changed thanks to front wheels further forward and what VW called a ‘cab backwards impression’. Cabin quality was back up and an array of standard and optional safety systems made it incredibly safe. Twin-charged engines were dropped in favour of turbos and, with the environment increasingly at the front of VW’s mind the car’s green credentials were bolstered by a ‘Buemotion’ version capable of a theoretical 88mpg, the hybrid performance GTE and the pure electric e-Golf.

Volkswagen Golf - siebente Generation

The MBQ platform’s ability to provide a base for performance models can’t be called into question, with the GTI and R versions of the Mk7 gaining plaudits from across the media and buyers. The GTI was boosted to 218hp as standard, and 227hp with the optional performance pack (which also equipped the car with a limited slip diff) and despite far better performance than its predecessor, was cheaper to insure and run. Star of the show, however, has been the Golf R which is an unquestionable success story. Its 2-litre, turbocharged EA888 lump puts out 296hp and combined with four-wheel-drive and a DSG ‘box gives the car superb performance across all parameters. In the UK at least, keen lease deals have meant that the R is as ubiquitous as the GTI.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Clubsport version of the Mk7 clawed back some of the deficit to the R by giving owners a more track-focussed, harder and sharper option over the standard GTI. Able to produce 284hp on overboost, it was acclaimed for its natural abilities.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport


Tomorrow sees the unveiling of the new Golf which is expected to be a revised version of the Mk7 – a Mk7.5 of sorts. The fine details aren’t clear yet, but our previous thoughts can be found here.

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