The year 1974 was a huge one for Volkswagen. After decades of building the Beetle and its air-cooled offshoots (Bus, Karmann Ghia, et al), the large German car maker was about to modernize its lineup like never before.
A new type of VW was unveiled to the public. Its engine was not in the rear, but up front, driving the front wheels. The shape of the car was a little boxy, in stark contrast to the Beetle’s assortment of curves. The Volkswagen Golf was born.
Management at VW knew it was time for a change. If they were to stay competitive, a modern car would be needed. After all, the Beetle – as good as it was – was starting to look like a real antique. Heck, it was an antique compared to what else was on the road.
The Golf was created to move Volkswagen forward, well into future decades. An efficient liquid-cool 4-cylinder sat under the car’s flat hood, and the front wheel drive design meant there was tons of room inside the relatively tidy exterior shell. And for the first time, you could have a VW with four doors.
In the U.S., of course, the car came with a cutesy name. The car called the Golf everywhere else was sold here as the Rabbit, with a charicature bunny rabbit added to the name badge to drive home the point of cuteness.
The Beetle soldiered on for a few more years here, but bit the dust completely in 1979. It was still sold in other countries for many more years, but in terms of volume sales in the industrialized world, the Golf was the new standard at Volkswagen.
This 40th anniversary of the Golf’s debut brings an all-new seventh-generation car. A bit wider and longer, and with a bit more room inside, the 2015 Golf continues the heritage set by that first one back in 1974.
And of course, the Golf line also includes the sporty GTI, which was first sold in the U.S. in 1983. The mission of the GTI is true to its original one: offer an affordable, sporty car that’s also practical.
Available as a 2-door or 4-door, the GTI is essentially a Golf with a more powerful engine and some chassis tweaks for better handling. And of course, visual cues to differentiate from the more pedestrian model. (Gotta have the sizzle to go with the steak.)
While the standard Golf gets a new 1.8-liter turbo engine that delivers 170 horsepower, the GTI steps it up with a 2.0-liter that belts out 210. Buyers have a choice of a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic (dual-clutch sequential) gearbox, and the optional Performance Package adds 10 horsepower and an electronic limited-slip differential.
Even though the new car is slightly bigger than the one it replaces, it lost 82 pounds. I’m not sure anyone would actually notice that difference in normal driving, but the days of cars getting heavier and heavier seem to be over.
Spirited handling has always been a GTI hallmark, and this seventh-generation car continues the tradition. A firmed-up sport suspension features slightly lower springs and larger anti-roll bars compared to the standard Golf. Further assisting crisp handling is a body shell made of more high-tech steel which is 10% stiffer than the previous car.
Inside, sport seats and a sport steering wheel greet the driver, and upper trim levels feature supple leather wrapped around both. In GTI tradition, red stitching adorns places like the steering wheel, gearshift knob, seats and elsewhere. There’s also red ambient lighting. If you don’t like red, the GTI is probably not the car for you.
As the Golf has evolved, so has the GTI. Starting at $24,995, it now accounts for roughly half of non-diesel Golf sales. And it has that history going back 40 years, designed to replace an iconic Volkswagen model. It’s probably safe to say that the Golf has become an icon itself.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz