A Golf in sheep's clothing

The Volkswagen Golf has successfully taken the fight away from its rivals over the years in the way it feels, the emotion it evokes and with its all-pervasive versatility.

It’s a solid car in many respects and one that has represented German ingenuity as much as German uniformity, but despite it being occasionally banal the VW Golf has always had soul.

Although other Germans, Europeans and the Japanese were playing catch-up by focusing on the cosmetic value of their offerings, VW persevered in giving its customers a car that almost had a premium feel to it.

But with soaring car prices, the resultant aggressive environment and competition in this segment, the most pertinent question right now is: is VW’s exemplar under-the-skin engineering enough for hard-to-please customers?

Let’s investigate.

With a new range of engines, which includes the 1.4-litre turbo supercharged unit, VW claims the new Golf has better-than-ever performance and fuel consumption.

The turbo supercharged 1.4-litre engine has been available in South Africa since the VW Tiguan was launched last year and it’s proving to be quite a successful addition to VW’s range. It has a decent amount of power (118kW and 240Nm) and since it averages 6.3-litres every 100km you don’t feel too bad about putting foot on open roads.

VW will keep the 1.6-litre petrol currently available on the outgoing Golf 5 while adding the unit mentioned above as well as a 2.0-litre turbo diesel and a less powerful 1.4-litre.

At a glance the new Golf looks much like the model it replaces and it’s practically the same size. Even the interior hasn’t changed significantly; it still feels a little lacklustre, but it is put together well.

The features list doesn’t offer much at the bottom of the range, but cruise control, dual-zone Climatronic aircon and electric windows all round are standard on the more expensive models.

This is where my ambivalence about the new Golf starts. While VW has added a driver’s side knee airbag to all models and there is a host of other standard safety aids such as ABS, ESP, ASR and electronic brakeforce distribution among others, some important features have been left off the standard features list.

Cruise control and multi-function steering should be listed as safety features, particularly the latter because taking your eyes off the road and focusing on the central console to adjust the radio’s volume or flick through playlists can cause you to do something stupid, which could result in an accident. Obviously fiddling with radio controls doesn’t cause daily carnage, but any feature that encourages you to keep your eyes on the road and makes you a more focused driver should count as more than a nifty gadget.

Yes, one can successfully argue—as VW executives did—that you have to trim some features to make the cars affordable, but when your competitors are offering those features gratis on cars that cost less it becomes infinitely more difficult not to scrutinise what the new Golf does or doesn’t have.

What I can safely say about the Golf 6 after driving all the models, except the 1.6-litre, is that it succeeds in positioning itself as a premium hatch because it feels composed under pressure, it’s easy to drive and it displays the sort of dynamics that have made Golfs coveted cars.

Of the models on offer, the 1.4-litre turbo supercharged was my favourite because its agility takes you completely by surprise. The slick six-speed manual transmission allows you to give it a little stick and is quite forgiving when your dark side takes over and you’re constantly pushing the rev counter needle into the red zone.

Another of the Golf 6’s notable strong points is that it was recently crowned World Car of the Year by a panel of motoring journos from across the globe.

After watching the poignant TV ad, which was shot in South Africa, about a rehabilitated three-legged cheetah who could still feel the wind in her fur courtesy of her owner’s Golf 6, the catchline laid my ambivalence to rest: “Just because she can’t run, doesn’t mean she’s not a cheetah.”

Just because VW is too shnoep to give the Golf 6 standard features its competitors provide at no extra cost, doesn’t mean its not one of the best all-rounders in its class.

The new Golfs range in price from R214 400 for the bottom-of-the-range 1.6-litre to R298 900 for the range-topping 2.0-litre TDi and they come standard with a three-year or 120 000 km warranty with services every 15 000km.

Q&A with VW’s communications general manager Bill Stephens

How is the Porsche takeover going to affect VW’s business?
At VW South Africa, not at all. That development is still a work in progress because there’s talk of the Volkswagen Group buying the shares back, so whichever way it works out, it’s not going to affect the VW brand.

Don’t you run the risk of driving Golf fans away from the brand by not giving them a higher standard specification on the new model?
We looked at the Golf 6 on what we call a price-index basis and we took into account all the features that are standard on the Golf and its competitors to ensure that we are competitive. Some of the competitors do offer standard features that the Golf doesn’t have, but the Golf also offers standard features, which are mostly safety features, that its competitors don’t have.

What about the marked increase in VW customer complaints, specifically through the VW complaints website? What are you doing to make your customers happier?
We take our customer complaints very seriously. We monitor our customer satisfaction index monthly and do intensive research. On both the sales and service levels, our customer satisfaction index performance has improved in the past 18 months. And we now have a sophisticated customer call centre, through which we monitor the complaints and the resolutions on a weekly basis and we are definitely improving.

How is the decreased global demand for cars going to affect the VW plant in Uitenhage?
We anticipate that volumes at our Uitenhage plant will be down about 30% this year in comparison to last year and that’s total production.

But we have a R3-billion investment programme, which we started last year, running through to 2010. This programme is designed to re-engineer our plant with new technology and training academies for our employees.

Based on our planning we don’t see any further reduction in our workforce for this year.

But if markets deteriorate significantly, we’ll have to look at that.

And the long-in-the-tooth Citi Golf?
Somewhere on the horizon, there must be a successor to the Citi Golf. It’s not imminent, but it’s certainly on the radar.


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