When Henry Ford used mass production to make cars, speeding up production while lowering their costs, one of the underlying factors was economies of scale. The more that could be made of an item, the cheaper each unit could be. It still applies today which is why volume matters so much for each model. In order to be competitively priced, the highest possible volume must be achieved and if that cannot be met, then there is no ‘business case’.
Ideally, for manufacturers, one model produced in millions would be the way to go but the reality is that ‘one size fits all’ won’t work. Some manufacturers have started out with one or two models but over time, they have had to offer more variety because of the extremely diverse requirements and tastes of buyers.
However, while a single model in a single specification won’t work, the approach of having variants does and can extend the appeal of the same model to a very broad spectrum of buyers. The Volkswagen Golf is an example of this approach and to different buyers, it means different things. Back in the mid-1970s, when the first Golf appeared as the successor to the Beetle that was the ‘People’s Car’, it was a small hatchback which offered economical motoring and practicality. Like the Mini, it was ‘class-less’, bought by university students as well as the wealthy who could afford much more expensive cars. At one time, even taxi drivers in Malaysia chose to use the Golf.
In the 44 years that the Golf has been in production, Volkswagen has covered many niches and can also lay claim to having created the ‘hot hatch’ segment with the model right from its first generation. For years, the GTI represented the hottest of the Golf family, upping the performance image when it added the R32 variant in the late 1990s with the fourth generation.
The R32 used a big 3.2-litre 6-cylinder engine to achieve its high performance but when the 21st century began, downsizing of engines began. By then, Volkswagen had started to exploit forced induction – turbocharging and supercharging – to get even higher outputs from its engines. This led to the addition of the first Golf R in 2009 which out-performed the R32 with an engine that was 1.2 litres less in displacement. This sixth generation of the model also had the Haldex all-wheel drive system known as 4Motion which was already available from the fourth generation.
The DNA of the Golf has carried through seven generations, each gaining improvements large and small. It’s interesting that the average life the first 6 generations was 6.3 years, slightly longer than the usual 5 years for many models in the market. So the fact that the current generation is still on sale after 6 years should not be unusual and as it’s already known that the Mark 8 will be launched in the second half of 2019 in Europe, this would mean the Mark 7 would have a 7-year life. That’s not the longest, though, as the Mark 1 was in production for 9 years.
7 years is a long time these days in a competitive market and like other manufacturers, Volkswagen has done a ‘mid-cycle’ update which has come to be regarded as the Golf ‘7.5’. It has sharper visual features, particularly at the front, and enhancements which provide extra safety as well as some new technology.
Globally, there are numerous variants but in the case of Malaysia, Volkswagen Passenger Cars Malaysia (VPCM) has chosen one ‘size’ – the classic 5-door the hatchback – but with three different ‘hearts’. There’s the Golf TSI Sportline and R Line (not to be mistaken for the Golf R) which have a 1.4-litre engine, turbocharged to boost output to 150 ps/250 Nm. Then there’s the iconic GTI with a turbocharged 2-litre engine that can produce up to 230 ps/350 Nm, and for those who want the ultimate Golf, the R with its 290 ps/380 Nm engine.
Normally, it would take a while for us to get through a family of different variants but VPCM decided that the quickest way to sample all of them would be a quick 400-km drive south. On the way, we were diverted to the twisty Bukit Putus road in Negeri Sembilan. In Johor, an obstacle course with a slalom was set up for experiencing the driving dynamics of the cars.
Having been on drive events where there have been cars of varying power, I’ve found that it makes more sense to start from the one with the lowest output. If the more powerful one is driven first, then the least powerful may feel ‘weak’ simply because of the earlier experience that was more impressive. This would be unfair as each variant has its own merits.
So I started off with the Golf 1.4 TSI R-Line which was finished in the eye-catching Turmeric Yellow. Apparently, this particular colour was specially developed for the Golf 7.5 and is only available for the R-Line variant sold in Malaysia. The Colour & Trim team members were inspired by turmeric powder and asked the paint supplier to replicate the shade. 12 years ago, they would not have been able to get such a colour because pigments had not advanced enough.
Though I didn’t drive the earliest generations of the Golf, I have had experience with the past few and the latest generation can be said to offer levels of quietness and smoothness that are the best so far. But it’s hard to say that the 7.5 is better in these aspects since the 7.0 already set a high standard.
The EA211 engine is unchanged from when it was introduced with this generation, replacing the earlier EA111. Turbocharged with intake air cooled by air-to-water heat exchanger integrated with the intake manifold, and cam phasers to vary timing on the 8 pairs of valves, the engine is a lightweight powerhouse in its own way.
The 7-speed DSG transmission is always a joy to use and allied with peak torque coming in from 1500 rpm and available to 3500 rpm, there’s the quick response that makes the car feel even more spirited. Old-timers who equate engine size with performance would be amazed to find the R-Line able to start off from a lay-by to join a highway and be at the highest national speed limit almost right away. In fact, from standstill to 100 km/h, it takes just a bit more than 8 seconds and another 10 km/h comes before 9 seconds have elapsed.
Now that the industry is moving towards a digital-graphic display for instrument panels, the options for displaying information are plentiful. You can have the classic meter display or prioritise the elements you want to be kept informed of. On the spacious 12.3-inch Active Info Display which is standard for the R-Line, the presentation is sharp with just the right contrast so that viewing is clear in any lighting condition.
The next member of the Golf family was the Golf R, a model which I first met in its previous generation on a race track in Germany 6 years ago. It was awesome to drive, especially when I could do so flat out on a track and even when I got to drive it in Malaysia later, the experience has always remained in memory.
I was looking forward to seeing how the latest generation performs but on the day we were to put it to the test, the rain came down. While the 4Motion AWD system made the wet ground an irrelevant issue, the VPCM people were concerned that there might be an ‘incident’ so the driving tests were moderated, especially taking into account the visibility.
But even in the wet conditions, the raw power of the engine was apparent as it surged off the line, transferring power onto the road through all four wheels.
The AWD system is extremely effective in apportioning more power (up to 50%) to the rear wheels as the front ones lose traction, so it can be in a continuous state of forward motion. You can power down a straight and when it’s time to turn, a flick of the steering wheel alters the course and the car doesn’t lose its momentum.
With Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC), the Golf R also has Drive Mode Selection so the car’s set-up can be personalised for a variety of driving conditions and preferences. ACC gives 3 choices of stiffness with some change in comfort but if you want the car to stay flat as you charge around corners, then that’s the small price to pay.
Drive Mode Selection has a Race mode and while this is no secret mode, it does very obviously transform the car as the transmission, dampers, steering and engine mapping are set aggressively. And just so everyone knows you are in ‘combat mode’, the sound from the 4 tailpipes gets louder (which was even evident with the heavy rain outside). Shifting gets quicker too, matching the rush of adrenalin in your body as you enjoy the even higher performance level.
For the return to KL, we had the GTI all the way and it once again showed me the versatility of the Golf and how, in a sense, it is actually a ‘one size fits all’ car. Of course, there are significant differences in performance and the GTI, as it has always been, is the hot-blooded member of the family like the younger R. But when it comes to interior packaging, they’re all in the same body that sits on the same MQB platform.
You get in the GTI the same spaciousness as every other variant except that the sports seats give you a tighter fit (depending on your body size, of course). And even being a high-performance model, it still gives you the practicality of an everyday hatchback with plenty of boot space. While elbowroom, headroom and legroom are good, I feel that the person who has to sit in the middle seat at the back won’t feel entirely positive about the Golf. With the seat backed by the centre armrest, the flat surface tends to be uncomfortable after a while.
Quite frankly, at the end of the drive, it was the Golf R-Line which I felt was the most pleasant to drive as it offers a good balance of performance and comfort, plus economy too. While enthusiasts may want lust for the hot-blooded GTI or R with their superlative performance, I feel the R-Line is good enough for most people as you can keep up with faster cars when necessary and comfortably cruise through town to work daily.
Whichever member of the Golf family you choose, the price which was set when GST was not applied will remain in effect even though Sales & Service Tax is now charged. VPCM’s Price Protection Scheme maintains the prices as they were in June, July and August and this scheme will be on till the middle of November 2018.