Can the Golf outlive the Beetle? When the former formally debuted in 1975, few thought Volkswagen’s all-new compact offering could outlive the legendary Bug, but it seems as if model longevity runs in the family. Volkswagen’s in the process of launching its seventh-generation Golf, so we’ve decided to look back and round up a few of our favorite Golfs that aren’t GTIs.
No, this technically isn’t a Golf, but it’s perhaps the first Volkswagen design to foreshadow the Golf’s basic formula – and it did so twenty years before the Golf’s introduction. While VW was busy cranking out billions of Bugs, its engineers were hard at work on their first in-house design. That car – known as EA 48 – couldn’t have been more different from the Beetle. Power came from an air-cooled flat-twin placed up front, which drove the front wheels. In lieu of the Beetle’s front torsion beam suspension, the EA utilized MacPherson struts.
Ultimately, nothing immediately came of the dumpy-looking prototype, but it profoundly shaped future Volkswagens to come. Although it was certainly smaller than the finished Mark 1 Golf/Rabbit the EA 48’s front-engine, front-wheel-drive, MacPherson front suspension arrangement lived on.
The Golf may have been designed and developed in Germany, but the pickup version was the brainchild of Volkswagen of America. The United States was still reeling from the impact of the OPEC crisis, and small, thrifty, pickups were skyrocketing in popularity. A Golf-based model seemed to tick the right boxes. Diesel-powered models, which used VW’s little 1.5-liter I-4, were incredibly stingy on fuel. Better yet, the fact that Golf/Rabbits were built in Pennsylvania meant the Pickup could be too, thus avoiding the so-called Chicken Tax levied on virtually every foreign-built small truck.
Sales in 1980 and 1980 were steady, ringing in at 25,532 and 33,879 units, respectively, but fell to 12,769 in 1982. VW decided to pull the plug on the model in mid-1983, but the Pickup didn’t die altogether. Instead, VW shipped tooling to its plant in Yugoslavia, and began selling it in Europe as the Caddy. Production ran until the early 1990s, although VW’s South African wing kept building Caddies through 2007.
When you think of Volkswagen AG and Pikes Peak, your mind flashes to wicked winged Audi Quattro S1 coupes screaming their way up the top of the 8400-foot mountain. Iconic, certainly, but the Quattros weren’t the only factory-backed VW product to compete at the Colorado hillclimb. In 1987, Volkswagen Motorsport fabricated a rally weapon of its own just for the Pikes Peak event.
Although it looked like any other Mark II Golf from afar, it bore virtually no mechanical relationship to the road car. In addition to an aluminum-intensive body structure, the Pikes Peak golf boasted not one but two 1.8-liter, 16-valve I-4s, each of which was fitted with both a supercharger and a turbocharger. The result? A hairy, 652-hp, all-wheel-drive monster – or, in other words, the ideal speed machine for setting a new course record. Sadly, it failed to do so, as a transmission failure near the finish line resulted in a DNF.
Box flares? All-wheel-drive? Extra power? It should be no wonder why we fawn over homologation rally specials, and the Rallye Golf is no exception. To counter the likes of the Lancia Delta Integrale in the World Rally Championship, VW Motorsport crafted its own rally weapon. Take one 158-hp, supercharged “G60” 1.8-liter I-4, mate it with a five-speed manual transmission and the company’s Syncro all-wheel-drive system, and wrap it in monochromatic bodywork complete with flared fenders, and boom: you have the Golf Rallye. In order to appease the FIA’s rulebook, VW hand-built 5000 road-going homologation copies for sale to the public.
Had things gone a little differently years ago, a handful of those cars would have even been sold in the United States. Automobile had the fortune to drive one of a handful of U.S.-spec Rallye Golf prototypes VW brought to the states. “One run through the first few gears proves this is no mere tart-up job on a basic Golf,” we wrote. “The G-Lader engine pulls smoothly and evenly, feeling much like a normally aspirated engine of perhaps 50 percent greater displacement. Once the tach needle clears 3000 rpm, revs seem to build exponentially, the car lunging forward on a satisfying wave of rising noises.”
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. James Fuller, the Volkswagen of America executive most in favor of selling the car stateside, perished during the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing in December of 1988. Had VWoA proceeded to sell the car in America, it would have carried a steep price tag – early estimates suggested a Rallye Golf would have fetched nearly $24,000 in 1989, or roughly $10,000 more than a GTI 16V.
Volkswagen first started offering its Syncro all-wheel-drive system in the second-generation Golf in 1986, but it took the idea to a new height – or ride height, rather – with the 1990 Country. VW lifted the suspension to provide an SUV-like stance, and then decked the car out with skid plates, tubular brush guards and rear bumpers, and a swing-away rear spare tire carrier. Roughly 4000 examples were built by Steyr-Daimler Puch in Austria, the same firm that helped co-develop the Syncro driveline in the first place.
Volkswagen started offering the supercharged G60 engine in European GTI models in 1990. The forced-induction four allowed the GTI to boast nearly 160 hp, but Volkswagen Motorsport thought it could do one better. The 1990 Golf Limited looked much like the GTI G60, but was essentially a Rallye Golf in sheep’s clothing. Actually, it was one step better – the eight-valve (two per cylinder) head used on the Rallye was replaced with the 16-valve head for the Limited, upping power to 210 hp. Only 71 examples were hand-built by VW Motorsport, and most were sold directly to corporate executives. It would remain one of the most potent Golf models ever built until the advent of the…
The R32 was Volkswagen’s first true stab at building an uber-Golf since the days of the Limited and Rallye, and like those cars, it almost wasn’t sold in North America. Thankfully, enthusiast minds within Volkswagen prevailed, and were rewarded with brisk sales. VW originally expected the 5000-car allotment for the U.S. to sell in two years; instead, the entire run was spoken for in roughly half that time. And why wouldn’t it be? The R32 represented the fourth-generation Golf’s swansong, and was packed with every sort of performance goodie the imagination could want. A 3.2-liter VR6 V-6 delivered a stout 240 hp, which was sent through a six-speed manual transmission to a Haldex-sourced 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.
Don’t let the GTI badges fool you: this isn’t a Golf GTI. It wasn’t, as we discovered during a brief drive in 200x, fully functional – gearshift paddles and ESP buttons were for décor only, and the battery functioned only to power the cooling fans — not the starter, or any other portion of the electrical system. But oh, what a wild creation the W12-650 was. In the vein of Group B rally weapons like the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 and MG Metro 6R4, engineers plunked an insanely powerful engine in the space normally allotted for a rear seat. In this case, the engine was a 650-hp twin-turbocharged W-12 borrowed from a Bentley Continental. That sort of power allowed engineers to boast a theoretical top end of over 200 mph and a 3.7-second 0-60 mph launch time, but as we found, putting that sort of power down without spinning proved challenging.
Production of the Mark 1 Golf/Rabbit ended eons ago, right? Wrong. Much like the original Beetle, previous Golf generations lived on in the corners of the globe long after they were discontinued in Europe and North America. Case in point? The first generation Golf was phased out in 1984, but assembly continued in South Africa, where the older Golf was known as the Citi Golf. In recent years, the Citi Golf received a number of styling cues applied to later Golfs, including monochromatic flared fenders and rockers, smoothed bumpers, new aluminum wheel patterns, and an updated interior. Production ultimately ended in late 2009, and a special-edition model called the Mk 1 added a lowered suspension, 15-inch aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and rocker sill stripes. Only 1000 Mk 1 special-edition models were built.
Okay, so this is essentially a sixth-generation GTI with a diesel engine, but we’ll bend the rules a little bit in this instance. Why? Because the GTD blurs the line between penny-p[inching fuel economy and hot hatch fun even further. At 170 hp, it’s a bit shy of the 200-hp offered by the GTI, but it still drives about as spritely while returning some impressive fuel economy figures. Although the GTD has been a European exclusive model for decades, there’s some hope for North America – Volkswagen’s U.S. product planners are keenly interested in bringing the next-generation model stateside. We say the sooner, the better.