How the middle classes have fallen out of love with the VW Golf

The hatchback that has enjoyed a 30-year affair with Europe's car buyers is being overtaken by its rivals
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The Independent Online

The middle classes may finally be falling out of love with the Volkswagen Golf after a 30-year affair that has made it the best-selling car in Europe.

Demand for its latest incarnation is so poor that production lines at three German factories will stop for four days over Easter.

The Golf Mark V, which went on sale in the UK a fortnight ago priced between £11,995 and £18,530, seem not to be the chic, must-have motor for Europe's families any more. They are no longer willing to pay a premium for the pride of driving a car with the VW badge and Golf name.

For £1,500 less, motorists can buy a Volkswagen-made Skoda, once the naffest car on the road, that according to one motoring journalist is now "easily the equal of a Golf in quality, fit and finish".

Although it is too early to tell how the car is doing in the UK - VW Group UK says sales here are "better than expected" - across Europe where the car has been in showrooms since the summer, sales are relatively meagre. While VW predicted 60,000 cars would be sold, in fact poor demand and production problems cut sales to just 12,300. VW also predicted sales would reach 600,000 this year, but analysts fear the company might be fortunate to sell 400,000. Bernd Pischetsrieder, the VW chairman, admitted "orders are not piling up to the ceiling".

Not that the new Golf is a bad car. The motoring press has praised its typical Golf characteristics of quality, practicality and understatement.

"At long last, the Golf is good to drive again," said one newspaper. "Dull, predictable, perfect!" proclaimed another. It has just been voted European Car of the Year. But in Germany, where the middle-aged are called the "Golf generation", the public has pooped the Mark V party.

"We are facing a quite different car market to 1997 when we launched the last Golf," said a VW spokesman. A "jubilee offer" to celebrate the Golf's 30th year was concocted: free air conditioning (usual cost: €1200, or £800) was thrown in on all models, despite Mr Pischetsrieder's claim he would never indulge in "the economic madness" of discounting.

"The price was not well judged," said Jürgen Pieper, analyst of Bankhaus Metzler in Frankfurt. "Volkswagen set it far too high." Similar pessimism haunts the French and Italian markets, too, leading to rising discounts from most manufacturers. But there are more fundamental problems for the Golf, in part as a result of its past success. For the competition has simply got better and better.

The original 1970s Golf found itself up against the likes of the Austin Allegro, Datsun Sunny and Ford Escort. They may have had their virtues, but the Golf was in a different class. Now the Mark V is faced by the Ford Focus, Peugeot 307, Renault Megane, Honda Civic and the upcoming Vauxhall/Opel Astra, all vastly better than their predecessors, and many more excellent cars in the sector as well.

Indeed, VW Group itself provides some interesting in-house alternatives to the Golf in the shape of the Skoda Octavia, Seat Toledo/Leon and Audi A3. There's also the issue of styling. The crisp, Giugiaro-styled 1974 model was fresh: the evolutionary approach to restyling it each time means it is now a very familiar shape indeed: why would anyone buy a new one when the old one looks so much like it?

Mike Orford, product affairs manager for VW Group UK, replies: "Customer research says the thing people like about the Golf is that it looks like a Golf. Some critics say it is not a very progressive design, but customers like it like that. It means that the old Golf doesn't look massively outdated, so Golfs have some of the strongest residual values of any car."

As if that was not enough to contend with, the car market is also becoming more fragmented, with mini people-carriers and small four-wheel drives attracting drivers who might otherwise have settled for the more orthodox five-door hatchback.

Volkswagen has responded slowly and belatedly to these changes. Even so, Mr Orford is upbeat about sales.

"The prices have gone up but we have increased equipment levels. In terms of value, if you look at the whole picture, it is the best in its class."

Additional reporting by Melanie Bien

So hot, so sexy - now a bit Third World

By Peter York

In the later 1980s, so I've just been reminded, I bought a lot of VW Golfs. Seven or eight, they say. They weren't for me. They were for the young officer class of my consultancy business. Ask them what they wanted and they'd say a Golf. Allied to these were those lovely letters GTI. One of my lads had two Golf convertibles. Both were stolen. They were hot on the street, too - remember the Beastie Boys?

From the late 70s on, but particularly in the Sloane Ranger Moment of 1982-83, the VW Golf, specially in its GTI form, was absolutely it for boy racers, City boys, proto-yuppies and anyone who remotely knew what was what. It was seriously fast, it was fun and it looked perky in a downplayed way.

It was profoundly class-safe, reliable and safety-engineered.In the 70s the Golf pioneered a format - a sharp, small hatchback configuration - and the GTI version pioneered the idea of the hot, sexy, fast little cars in classless-looking sheep's clothing.

Thirty years on, the Mark V isn't selling at home in Germany and there's a feeling that it won't here. The bigger, heavier, better-equipped, vastly sensible Golf Mark V just isn't special any more - and it certainly isn't sexy.

So what are 21st-century boy racers buying instead? All sorts of things. There are lots of cars in the Golf class from Japan and France, even the UK, all with their fans. The Golf, like its fantastic commercials - remember Paula Hamilton dropping her necklace and fur coat in the mews, or the man who bet the shop in Monte Carlo? - was marvellously 80s. But, like everything 80s now, it looks utterly charming but just that bit Third World too.

How the Golf measures up

VW Golf: three-door 1.6 litre. Model S

How much is it? £13,705

What it comes with Central locking, CD player and power steering

What the critics say "At long last, the Golf is good to drive again; if not quite equal to the most sporting of its rivals, it is damn close, and nicer and more comfortable to boot"

Toyota Corolla: three-door hatchback, 1.6 litre. Model T3

How much is it? £12,413 on the road

What it comes with Air conditioning, central locking, power steering and CD player

What the critics say "Genuinely fun to drive . . . a fine long-distance companion"

Ford Focus: three-door hatchback, 1.6 litre. Model LX

How much is it? £12,900

What it comes with

Air conditioning, central locking, power steering and CD player

What the critics say "Four years on, the Focus is still at the top of the tree. It's roomy, value for money, and drives like a little Ferrari"

Honda Civic: three-door hatchback, 1.6 litre. Model Vtec SE

How much is it? £12,013

What it comes with

Air conditioning, central locking, power steering and CD player

What the critics say "A high-quality family hatchback"

Vauxhall Astra: three-door hatchback, 1.6 litre. Model SX1

How much is it? £13,020

What it comes with Air conditioning, central locking, power steering and CD player

What the critics say "A match for the class-leading Ford Focus"

Seat Leon: five-door hatchback, 1.6 litre. Model SX

How much is it? £11,200

What it comes with

Air conditioning, central locking, power steering and CD player

What the critics say

"Built like a Golf but represents good value for money"

Research by Annabel Fallon