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Volkswagen Golf Through the Years

Stephen Rivers

Since 1974 the Volkswagen Golf, or Rabbit depending on where you’re from, has democratized quality and speed. Here’s how it’s kept its hot hatch DNA.

Looking at Volkswagen Golf Generations

While the Volkswagen Golf is just one of more than a dozen smallish cars available on the market today, it actually began that shift to small but capable cars all the way back in 1974. Over the course of nearly 50 years now, Volkswagen has slowly grown the Golf from very humble roots to a true powerhouse for the brand that’s become the most popular in its stable. Today we dig into the details and the evolution that’s kept it ahead of its competitors in one aspect or another.

First Generation (1974-1983)

1974 Volkswagen Golf - MotorTV on YouTube.com

1974 Volkswagen Golf – MotorTV on YouTube.com |  Shop Volkswagen Golf on Carsforsale.com

  • The first Volkswagen Golf is released in 1974 mainly as a replacement for the popular but harder-to-build Volkswagen Beetle.
  • Unlike the Beetle, the Golf uses a front-wheel-drive platform with the engine in the front.
  • In another dramatic change from the Beetle, the first generation Volkswagen Golf used hard creases and straight lines to stand out from other options.
1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI - Donut Media on YouTube.com
1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI - Donut Media on YouTube.com
  • This new simplistic style was due to the it being completed by none other than famous car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.
  • In the United States and Canada, Volkswagen called the Golf the Rabbit and released it in 1975.
  • It was such a success that more than a million had been sold by the end of 1976.
  • Also arriving in 1976 was the historic game-changer the Golf GTI, the first “Hot Hatch”.

Second Generation (1983-1990)

1983 Volkswagen Golf - furiousdriving on YouTube.com
1983 Volkswagen Golf - furiousdriving on YouTube.com
  • Some 9 years after its introduction, the Volkswagen Golf had its first major update in 1983 with its second generation.
  • Dimensions grew in all directions for the Golf, but overall the car remained small with slightly less angular styling.
  • For the first time, a four-wheel-drive version was available called the Golf Syncro.
1989 Volkswagen Golf Rallye - media.vw.com
1989 Volkswagen Golf Rallye - media.vw.com
  • In 1985, the next version of the Golf GTI arrived with 110 horsepower, but also spawned many variants.
  • A special Rallye Golf arrived with a supercharger, all-wheel-drive, and 160 horsepower.
  • Then Volkswagen sold a GTI G60 with the same motor, but just front-wheel-drive.
  • There was also a very rare GTI G60 Limited for this Volkswagen Golf generation that had all-wheel-drive and a 210 horsepower engine.

Third Generation (1991-1996)

1992 Volkswagen Golf - Volkswagen News on YouTube.com
1992 Volkswagen Golf - Volkswagen News on YouTube.com
  • In 1991, Volkswagen introduced the third generation Golf and while the wheelbase was unchanged, everything else grew.
  • Interior space was bigger, the exterior design was rounder than ever, and new engine options became available.
  • For the first time, a diesel option could be installed in the econobox adding even more efficiency.
1995 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
1995 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
  • The VR6, an engine that was revolutionary at the time, becomes available as well and is the engine of choice for the MKIII GTI model.
  • Despite displacing 2.8-liters and making 178 horsepower, the narrow-angle V6 easily fit in the small engine bay of the GTI.
  • In 1992, the Volkswagen Golf won the “European Car Of The Year” award.
  • While this Volkswagen Golf generation was by far the most refined ever, reviewers in general felt the car had lost some of its sharpness.

Fourth Generation (1997-2003)

2001 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
2001 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
  • Volkswagen quickly went to work on developing a more nimble Golf and released the next generation just 6 years later in 1997.
  • This new car was intended to shine a more luxurious and high-end light on Volkswagen as a brand.
  • The 1.9-liter diesel motor available in this Volkswagon Golf generation was capable of 48 miles per gallon on the highway.
  • In 2002, the revolutionary Golf R32 was introduced with the most potent VR6 ever used. This VR6 had been enlarged to 3.2-liters and routed 234 horsepower to all four wheels.

Fifth Generation (2003-2007)

2004 Volkswagen Golf R32 - EverydayDriver on YouTube.com
2004 Volkswagen Golf R32 - EverydayDriver on YouTube.com
  • In 2003, Volkswagen introduced the MKV Golf with a drastically updated platform.
  • Gone were the hard lines in favor of rounded off edges and styling.
  • Available as a three-door or a five-door, this Volkswagen Golf generation met the needs of more buyers than ever before.
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2006 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
2006 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
  • The new GTI variant made less horsepower than previous generations at just 197, but could be had with a new dual-clutch automatic.
  • The R32 variant used the same V6 from the MKIV, but Volkswagen boosted power to 247 horses.
  • While performance had been the focus of this generation, Volkswagen wanted to refine the car and add back some of the efficiency lost over the years. So, an all-new model was commissioned for 2008.

Sixth Generation (2008-2011)

2008 Volkswagen Golf GTI - Redline Reviews on YouTube.com
2008 Volkswagen Golf GTI - Redline Reviews on YouTube.com
  • While under the bodywork the platform was indeed much improved, many have looked at the MKVI Golf as more of an evolution of the MKV.
  • This idea is due in part to very similar styling and both cars ultimately being based on the PQ35 platform.
2010 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
2010 Volkswagen Golf - carsforsale.com
  • Volkswagen again pushed the Golf as a more luxurious option compared to its rivals and fitted the car with better quality interior materials.
  • They also worked hard to reduce interior road noise levels and reduce overall build costs.
  • Adding to its accolades, Volkswagen achieved a top safety pick rating from the IIHS in 2012 with the Golf.

Seventh Generation (2012-2018)

2012 Volkswagen Golf R - carsforsale.com
2012 Volkswagen Golf R - carsforsale.com
  • Debuting in 2012, the MKVII Golf was a clean sheet build for Volkswagen that focused on interior comfort over all else.
  • Despite being only 2cm wider and less than 6cm longer in terms of wheelbase, the new Golf added considerably more interior space.
  • It also managed to save some 100kg over the previous Volkswagen Golf generation depending on the engine it was optioned with.
2015 Volkwagen e-Golf - carsforsale.com
2015 Volkwagen e-Golf - carsforsale.com
  • These changes made the Golf even more popular and helped it win more than 10 different major awards for design and overall quality.
  • Advanced safety features like Adaptive Cruise Control became available for the first time on the Golf for this generation.
  • The Golf R, now taking the spot in the lineup where the R32 used to reside, made 296 horsepower and could be optioned with a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic.
  • An all-electric e-Golf was offered for the first time in 2014 with up to 118 miles of range.

Eighth Generation (2019-Present)

2019 Volkswagen Golf R - carsforsale.com

2019 Volkswagen Golf R – carsforsale.com |  Shop Volkswagen Golf on Carsforsale.com

  • Released in 2019, the latest version of the Volkswagen Golf has all the new technology buyers could want without losing its charm.
  • LED headlights are standard on all models for the first time.
  • Gone is the traditional gauge cluster in favor of a 10.25-inch display screen that can be configured by the driver.
2021 Volkswagen Golf - media.vw.com
2021 Volkswagen Golf - media.vw.com
  • More drivetrains are available than ever before including gas, diesel, hybrid, and full electric.
  • The newest Golf GTI makes just under 230 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.
  • The top of the line Golf R boasts some 315 horsepower, 310 lb-ft of torque, and is expected to go on sale sometime later this year.

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Stephen Rivers
Stephen Rivers

Stephen is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion. In his free time, he’s usually at a hockey rink, walking his dogs, or on a road bike. His automotive tastes lean towards cars that oftentimes seem to take a pound of flesh for the ethereal pleasure they provide: things like the Lamborghini Diablo, TVR Cerbera, and a C4 Corvette turned into a street-legal go-kart. He drives his Bugeye Subaru WRX in Autocross, Rallycross, and track day competitions throughout the year and daily drives a twin-turbo BMW 535i.

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