There are many cars in the world that claim to have changed motoring forever, but there are far fewer that could legitimately say they have shaped the car world for decades. The Volkswagen Golf is one of those cars.
The year is 1974, small hatchbacks have become a frequent sight on the roads of Britain, but still aren't as ubiquitous as they have become today – certainly not German ones! Enter the first generation Golf. VW saw the Golf as the replacement for the Beetle, and what a mantle that was to take over. But for us the biggest impact of the first generation of Golf was not the update to front-engined, front-wheel-drive, water cooling, or the fact that for some unfathomable reason Volkswagen called it the Rabbit in the States. No, it was the Golf GTI, a car that could legitimately claim to be the first proper hot hatch. The Golf was a sensible affordable German car that could suit all your family needs. And there was even a convertible.
By the 1980s everything was getting bigger. A time of excess, of money and plenty. So the Golf too got a bit bigger, and a little softer round the edges. The Mk2 GTI followed and is a car that might not quite match the original for iconic status, but is a pretty decent choice today if you can't quite stretch to 2019 Mk1 values. The Mk2 Golf also saw four-wheel-drive arrive in a VW hatchback for the first time in the form of the Golf Synchro. While there was a second generation Jetta saloon, weirdly Volkswagen chose not to make a second-generation cabriolet, and the original one stayed on sale throughout the Mk2's life.
In 1993 the Golf got bigger again with the Mk3, although the wheelbase remained the same as ten years earlier. The soon-to-be-criticised Mk3 actually won European Car of the Year and would bring TDI diesel technology to the Golf for the first time. But critics began to lament it's lumpier nature, and the Mk3 GTI was a little underwhelming. However the third generation of Golfs introduced an estate to the family for the first time and we finally had a second cabriolet to play with.
Here we go. The Mk4 is the one that no one really wants to remember, although if you actually go off and drive one you probably won't really see why. Yes, the fourth GTI was little more than a warmed-up version of the standard car, but what we did get was the great grandfather of today's R in the shape of the first Golf R32. This generation of Golf spawned the unmissed Bora (it's a Jetta just with a different name), but there was no new cabriolet, instead the Mk3 got a facelift. The Mk4 lasted from 1997 until 2003, meaning it hung around with us for longer than the third generation, but had nothing on the early Golf longevity. In 2001 the Golf became the best-selling car in Europe, and one Mk4 even found its way into the hands of the future Pope Benedict XVI, who was then plain old Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and used it to drive around Rome. That car was later sold on eBay to an online casino for a barmy €188,000.
Now we're talking. The Mk5 GTI was a return to form, a good looking hot hatch that people really wanted to get their hands on, and the standard car didn't look half bad either. The Mk5 saw a lot of returns, the old tartan seat fabric could be found in the GTI, the Jetta name was back (bye bye Bora, we hardly knew you), and for some reason in the US, so was the name Rabbit. The fifth-gen Golf was introduced in 2003 and sold all the way until 2009. While there was no specific Golf Cabriolet in the mid-2000s, instead there was an Eos, which to all intents and purposes was a Jetta coupe with no roof. There was also a bigger 'Plus' model with the world in the middle of the small-MPV craze. Back in performance land the refreshed GTI now boasted 200PS from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder, and the hooligan R32, often seen sporting exhausts the size of Oxfordshire, was now fitted with a 3.2-litre V6 capable of 250PS. The Golf may never have really gone away, but it was definitely back.
The design of the Mk6 Golf is to the Mk5 what the Mk2 was to the Mk1. A refinement for the times. The new Golf looked like a slightly edgier version of the old one, but it was now more efficient. The interior had been given an upgrade in quality and there was once more a Golf Cabriolet. The Eos having gone the way of the Bora into the big bag of bad VW names along, finally, with 'Rabbit'. The Mk6 also dropped the '32' from its hottest edition, signalling that the 3.6 V6 had gone the way of the Bora. Fear not though, for the first 'Golf R' (it was nearly called the R20) had 270PS from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor. The Sixth edition of the Golf would remain with us until 2013.
The current Golf (although if you want to be picky the current car is the 7.5) arrived in 2012 ready to spawn an absolute cavalcade of new derivatives. In the last six years the Golf and its staple GTI and R variants have been joined by the fast diesel GTD, the hybrid GTE, the slightly lifted Alltrack and, perhaps most importantly, the first all-electric version of the Golf called, cunningly, the e-Golf. The Mk7 Golf GTI now came with almost as many horsepower as the original R32 (220PS) and the R had 300PS and could be bought as an estate. The Mk7 has also spawned some rather lovely special editions, specifically the GTI Clubsport, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Golf by going on a roid rage until it had 286PS on overboost, and the TCR edition which we drove recently, which is near as damn it a front-wheel-drive R.
The Mk8 Golf was unveiled in October 2019 to much fanfare from Volkswagen. While it may look like another evolution of a very familiar machine (and in many ways it is), it is the most advanced Golf ever. There are petrol and diesel models to begin with, as well as no less than four hybrid models, including a mild-hybrid and plug-in hybrid. The Golf GTI, Golf R and e-Golf will arrive over the next year or two.
If the exterior leaves you wanting (evolution not revolution), the interior is a very different proposition to any Golf of the past. It features a totally digital cockpit as standard, with a 10.25-inch instrument display and a 10-inch central infotainment touchscreen. First UK deliveries will be just in time for summer 2020.