Volkswagen Golf History

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Sunday, February 9, 1964 was the night the Beatles first appeared on CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show. The studio audience went ballistic as the group ripped through "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and viewers across the country were mesmerized. It was one of the great moments in the history of music, television and pop culture. The next act on the show was an acrobatic comedy troupe called "Wells and the Four Fays."

The Beatles became legends…and Wells and the Four Fays became just the answer to a trivia question.

Just about a decade after Wells and the Four Fays followed the greatest act in show business, the Volkswagen Golf (called the Rabbit in the U.S.) faced the daunting task of following the most popular car ever built — the Beetle. Fortunately for VW, the Golf was nearly as big a hit as the Beetle had been and the company was able to soon phase out Beetle production in Germany. It would take nearly another three decades, but eventually the Golf replaced the Beetle in the rest of the world, too.

Following Beetles or Beatles isn't easy. But the Golf is much more than the answer to a trivia question.

First-Generation Rabbit/Golf: 1975-1984

Why did Volkswagen decide to call the new front-drive small car it called the "Golf" everywhere else in the world the "Rabbit" in America? Go ahead and guess, because VW has never offered an official (much less believable) explanation.

The Golf debuted during 1974 in Europe but didn't make it to the U.S. as the Rabbit until the 1975 model year. While it was clearly intended as a successor to the Beetle, it wasn't VW's first attempt at replacing that icon. "So many new models have been hailed as Beetle successors without ever even approaching its production figures," wrote Road & Track on its first exposure to the European Golf, "that we have learned to be careful. But probably no car in the VW range has ever had a better chance of taking up where the Beetle might leave off. Volkswagen expressly says that production of the Golf will not interfere with the Beetle program — at least for the time being. This sounds quite reasonable, for you don't drop overnight a car of which 5,000 units are produced daily — 3,000 in Wolfsburg and about 2,000 in other branches of the company — especially when it's the only model on which you make money."

So, conscious of its own profitability, VW was hedging its enthusiasm for the new Golf/Rabbit by keeping Beetle going full bore. But to buyers, that the Golf was a radically better product than the then nearly 40-year-old Beetle was obvious.

The Golf formula was essentially the polar opposite of the Beetle's. In place of a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine driving the rear wheels, the Golf used a front-mounted, water-cooled inline four driving the front wheels. In place of the curved metal that defined the Beetle's appearance, the Golf had sharply creased lines drawn by the famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Beetle was a two-door with a dinky trunk in the front, while the Golf was available as either a two- or four-door and both opened up for maximum cargo hauling thanks to a large rear hatchback door. The Beetle was built atop a stamped steel chassis, while the Golf had a simple unibody structure. But the two at least had this in common: Just as the Beetle's layout was the most efficient possible considering the limitations of 1930s technology, so too was the Golf's design the most efficient possible in the 1970s.

At just 146 inches long, the first Golf was a small car even by European standards. But the wheelbase was a relatively long 94.2 inches and that effectively put the wheels at each corner of the car, and at 63.5 inches it was pretty wide for its size and era, too (a contemporary Toyota Corolla was 3.6 inches narrower). The result was excellent space utilization and an interior that felt huge — because it was huge — in comparison to the competition. And the interior was comfortable and contemporary with a simple instrument pod in front of the driver and bolt upright seating.

Power for the Euro-spec Golf came from either a puny 1.1-liter four or a more reasonable 1.5-liter version of the same basic SOHC, eight-valve engine. The transaxle featured either four manually selected gears or three cogs when automatic operation was preferred. The suspension consisted of simple MacPherson struts up front and a unique trailing arm independent system for the rear. Drum brakes were used at all four wheels on the 1.1-liter car, while front discs were part of the larger engine package.

With a curb weight under 1,900 pounds and precise rack and pinion steering, the first Golf was a revelation and instantly set the standard for small-car handling and overall performance. Throw in competitive prices and the car was an instant hit with sales far exceeding VW's most optimistic forecasts and just about everyone acknowledging that, yes, this car would replace the Beetle.

The Rabbit actually followed the Scirocco sport coupe (built atop the Golf/Rabbit chassis) to America debuting for the 1975 model year. Bumpers mounted on hydraulic pistons to meet American regulations stretched the car's length to 155.3 inches and pushed the curb weight above 1,900 pounds, but it was still very much the Golf and built on the same assembly line in Wolfsburg, West Germany. Only the 1.5-liter engine model made it to the United States and that engine was rated at a modest 70 horsepower while breathing through a single Zenith two-barrel carburetor.

Road & Track pitted the new $2,999 Rabbit against eight of its competitors and proclaimed it "the winner, and not by a hare (sorry, couldn't resist)." After that agonizingly obvious pun, the praise just got more effusive. "The Rabbit is also the handler of the group. It's the only car besides the Honda [Civic] to break the 0.7G barrier on the skid pad and that 0.73G figure puts it right up there with many much more expensive sports cars and sport sedans. It's also the best balanced of all the cars tested, with mild understeer turning to gentle oversteer if you back off the throttle during hard cornering. The steering is a little on the heavy side but exhibits remarkably little front-wheel-drive effect (a tightening when you accelerate through corners) and is precise and quick. The ride is firm and well controlled; you can take dips and large bumps almost as if they didn't exist…. Best of all it's almost sinfully fun to drive." That excellent cornering and those delightful manners were achieved on modest 155-section Semperit radials wrapped around 13-inch wheels.

The four-speed Rabbit's 12.7-second 0-60 time for Road & Track is disgraceful by 21st-century standards, but it was the quickest car of the nine in that batch with its brother, the Beetle, bringing up the rear with an 18.1-second clocking. The Rabbit's 19.0-second quarter-mile performance was also the test's best. The magazine criticized the Rabbit for lackluster brakes (high pedal effort and quick fades), hazy shift linkage and some engine jerkiness, but those were minor quibbles.

Meanwhile in Europe, the '75 Golf was now available as a GTI version fitted with a fuel-injected 1.6-liter engine making a stunning 110 hp, a revised suspension, full instrumentation that included a tachometer and big (sort of) 175-millimeter-wide tires. The GTI instantly created the "hot hatch" market segment in Europe and America wouldn't get its own version for…well, read on.

For 1976 the Rabbit got a carbureted version of the GTI's 1.6-liter engine making one more horsepower than the superseded 1.5 for a total of 71. The car was already selling in big numbers in both Europe and America, so VW wasn't about to mess with it much. However, minor tweaks like a heat shield between the exhaust pipe and fuel tank, revised window trim and some carburetor adjustments significantly improved drivability and overall enjoyment. In its test, Car and Driver measured a '76 Rabbit getting to 60 mph in just 10.9 seconds.

Diesel power came to the Rabbit lineup for 1977 with the addition of a 1.5-liter diesel four to the options list. Rated at just 48 hp, this engine delivered phenomenal fuel mileage with the EPA ratings coming in at nearly 50 mpg on the highway and nearly 40 mpg in the city. Slow? Yeah, acceleration was absolutely glacial but many diesel Rabbit buyers wore their lackadaisical performance as a sign of their own obvious virtues. And the diesel option was cheap, carrying a premium of only $170 over that of the gas-fueled version.

The Rabbit carried over into 1978 visually unchanged but once again was powered by the 1.5-liter version of VW's water-cooled four. Now rated at 71 hp (the same as the previous 1.6-liter) it made little difference in performance. However, big changes were on the way.

In July of '78, VW started production of the 1979 Rabbit in a new plant it had built (using the shell of an old Chrysler plant as a base) in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. Volkswagen became the first foreign manufacturer to establish a significant production base in the U.S., opening the door for Honda, Toyota and just about every other German manufacturer to follow.

The Rabbits produced in the U.S. differed from their German cousins in having square instead of round headlights, larger taillights, color-matched interiors, some spectacularly ugly hubcaps and a suspension softened for domestic consumption.

A newly available five-speed manual transmission was the major addition to the 1979 Rabbit's mechanical package. That helped the diesel version achieve an astonishing 53 mpg on the highway and 40 mpg in the city, according to the EPA.

Initially, German and American Rabbits were sold alongside each other and were easily distinguished by their headlights. But soon all gas-powered Rabbits sold in America were American made, even as all the diesels still came from Wolfsburg.

The last Beetle in VW's U.S. lineup, the convertible, was finally gone after the '79 model year and in its place was a new Rabbit convertible for 1980. Like the Beetle convertible, the Rabbit version was built with coachbuilder Karmann doing much of the work. As in the Beetle, the top dropped back into a rather tall stack at the car's rear, but that's about all they had in common.

Turning the two-door hatchback Rabbit into a convertible entailed some rather radical surgery. Naturally the steel roof was hacked off, but the frames around the door windows were excised as well necessitating new glass and new seals. The rear fenders were also reshaped so they now had a slight kickup leading to their trailing edge and contained roll-up quarter windows. In place of the hatchback a flap now allowed awkward access to a small trunklet below the convertible top and access to the interior when the rear seat was folded forward. But the ragtop Rabbit's most distinctive element was a padded steel hoop that ran across and over the cockpit just behind the doors that added both structural heft to the unibody and rollover protection. In all, the Rabbit convertible was just flat-out adorable and was soon filling sorority house parking lots across the country. Power for the convertible came from a new fuel-injected 1.6-liter version of VW's SOHC four rated at 76 hp and mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission (a three-speed automatic was optional). Car and Driver's test of a 2,170-pound, manual-transmission convertible had it getting to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at 71 mph.

While the convertible was made in Germany, virtually all other '80 Rabbits were now made in America (a few diesels still came from Europe). The standard engine was still the 1.5-liter carbureted four with the convertible's injected 1.6-liter version and the diesel optional. In a comparison test against its new be-trunked brother, the German-made Jetta, Car and Driver found the lighter American-made Rabbit to be slightly quicker but still suffering the squishy suspension effects of its Americanization.

While both the Jetta and convertible proved to be amazingly popular variations on the basic Golf/Rabbit theme, the most bizarre twist came with the introduction of the Rabbit pickup, also during the 1980 model year. Available with both gas and diesel engines, the pickup wasn't much more than a Rabbit cut down at the B-pillar (just behind the front seats) with a bed grafted on behind. The most significant mechanical changes were a longer wheelbase and a revised leaf spring and solid axle rear suspension for better load carrying. The pickup would never be a big seller, but it sure was unique.

For 1981 the Rabbit's nose was redesigned and now used wraparound front turn signals. The big mechanical change was the adoption of a new 1.7-liter version of VW's SOHC four that, using fuel injection, was rated at 74 hp. It was the only gas engine available that year and the optional diesel engine also grew to 1.6 liters and 52 hp. Car and Driver clocked the gas-powered version traipsing to 60 mph in 11.6 seconds while the diesel took a languorous 18.8 seconds to achieve the same velocity.

For all intents and purposes, the 1982 Rabbit was a rerun of '81. It was the lull before the storm. That storm was the 1983 Rabbit GTI — arriving nearly a decade after the first Golf GTI had gone on sale in Europe. Featuring a 90-hp, 1.8-liter version of the fuel-injected four, the $7,995 GTI also got a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission, a revamped interior with aggressive seats and full instrumentation and a revised suspension wearing 14-inch wheels and Pirelli P6 tires. It wasn't as quick as the Euro GTI, but it was mighty good in comparison to other small cars then available in the states and Car and Driver immediately put it on its "10Best" list proclaiming, "This product should be a cause for rejoicing among all those people who ever owned a Beetle or treasured the high-protein goodness of a BMW 2002, because this car marks a return to the fundamental German verities by Volkswagen's badly withered American manufacturing and marketing arm…. In our introduction story on the GTI we called it 'the car we've all been waiting for,' and that's exactly what it is. A fast, entertaining, high-quality car at an affordable price built on an American assembly line by American workers."

The other Rabbits carried through '83 and 1984 pretty much unchanged in anticipation of the next Rabbit to come — though the Rabbit name would die. How lovable were these first Golfs and Rabbits? As this is written — a full 30 years after their introduction in Europe — the original Golf/Rabbit and, almost unbelievably, the Rabbit Pickup are still in production in South Africa as low-cost entry-level models. And they still sell solidly down there.

Second-Generation Golf: 1985-1993

In a startling fit of rationality, VW decided to call the new second-generation Golf the "Golf" when it went on sale in the United States. The Rabbit name was dead, but the basic ideas of the first-generation car carried forward.

The 1985 Golf came from VW's own styling studios and wasn't anywhere near as distinguished in profile or detail as the first. It wasn't ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but it seemed awkward where the first was taut and indistinct while the original was iconic. The new car was OK, but it would never be beloved like the first-generation Golf.

In general layout the second Golf was almost indistinguishable from the first. It was still available only as a hatchback with either two or four doors. The front suspension was still a pair of MacPherson struts while the rear now used a torsion beam solid axle. The four-cylinder engine still sat transversely in the nose and it still turned a five-speed manual transaxle or optional three-speed automatic. And that standard engine was a revised version of the GTI's fuel-injected, SOHC, eight-valve, 1.8-liter four rated at 85 hp. The GTI engine had the same displacement and layout, but had a slightly higher compression ratio and carried a 102-hp rating. The 1.6-liter diesel was also back in two versions: a naturally aspirated one making 52 hp and a turbocharged one making 68 hp.

The Golf was larger in virtually every dimension over the Rabbit. The wheelbase now spanned 97.3 inches (up 3.1 inches), overall length was now 158.0 inches (up 2.7 inches) and the overall width was now a full 65.5 inches (up 2.0 inches). Fortunately those larger external dimensions translated into more room as the EPA now rated the Golf as a "compact" rather than a "subcompact." Unfortunately the car was also heavier with its weight approaching 2,200 pounds for some models.

While the Golf (along with its trunk-wearing brother, the Jetta) was all-new, the Rabbit Convertible was left practically untouched. The big change for that vehicle was a name change from Rabbit to Cabriolet…and it continued to attract more buyers to its cult of cute, cuddly, pastel and feminine.

The Golf lineup went through 1986 with no significant change and then received a significant power boost when a new DOHC, 16-valve version of the 1.8-liter four was introduced for the 1987 GTI. But there was also a power loss on the diesel side as the turbodiesel engine was killed.

Rated at 123 hp, the 16-valve engine made for the quickest GTI yet and its smooth operation made the car feel even more sophisticated than before. However, while it's generally conceded that the 16-valve GTI was a superior car to the Rabbit GTI, it has never engendered the sort of affection that its predecessor enjoyed.

With the GTI now boasting that multivalve engine, what had been the GTI was rebadged as a "GT" and was still sold with the 102-hp version of the 1.8-liter, SOHC, eight-valve engine.

The GTI was offered with genuine Recaro seats during the 1988 model year, and the base Golf engine was rerated to 100 hp, but otherwise the line carried over pretty much intact. Volkswagen's experiment with U.S. production, however, was deemed a failure and the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, assembly plant was shut down after this model year (the plant now assembles television sets for Sony). Production of the diesel Golf also concluded.

Golf production for the 1989 model year was now split between Germany and VW's plant in Mexico but the cars themselves were basically reruns of the '88 models.

A driver-side airbag was fitted to the 1990 Cabriolet (still Rabbit based) and the GTI's 16-valve engine grew to 2.0 liters and 131 hp, but other changes were light. And not much changed for 1991 — though the eight-valve GT was renamed GTI and the GTI with the 16-valve engine became, naturally, the GTI 16-valve. Though a fourth gear was added to the automatic transmission, both 1992 and 1993 were otherwise repeats as the third Golf was on the way.

Third-Generation Golf: 1994-1998

Much as the second Golf expanded on the themes of the first Golf (er, Rabbit), so the third one did on the second. The wheelbase was up again to 97.3 inches, overall length grew to 160.5 inches and total width was now 66.7 inches. The structure was stiffer, but the basic elements of two- and four-door hatchback body styles, a MacPherson strut front suspension and five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transaxles carried over. The look was more rounded (again) and more monochromatic, but still recognizably a VW Golf — neither ugly nor really beautiful.

The new Golf's base engine was a 2.0-liter, SOHC, eight-valve four rated at 115 hp. And for 1994 at least, that same engine powered the GTI (that helps explain why VW sold only 315 examples during the year).

Meanwhile, the Cabrio continued unchanged, still based on the old Rabbit chassis. That wouldn't last long.

The Cabrio caught up with the rest of the Golf line as it was based on the third-generation Golf shell for 1995. As it did when creating the Rabbit Convertible, VW redesigned the Golf's rear fenders, added new roll-down rear-quarter windows, significantly modified the doors and front side windows and added a new integral roll bar to create the Cabrio. In all it was a straightforward application of VW's successful Cabrio formula applied to the new body style. And it was available only with the same 115-hp, 2.0-liter four that powered other Golfs.

Outside the Cabrio, the rest of the '95 Golf range was a carryover — with one lusty exception. That exception was the GTI, which now had VW's unique 2.8-liter VR6 engine under its hood.

The VR6 concept was to take a conventional V6 and narrow the angle between the two cylinder banks to just 15 degrees so that all the pistons could reside under a single cylinder head. With two overhead cams controlling two valves per cylinder, the 2.8-liter VR6 was rated at a thrilling 172 hp while producing 177 pound-feet of torque at just 4,200 rpm. Compared to the fours that had powered previous GTIs, this engine was a brute — and it emitted a magnificent basso vibrato through the exhaust system.

While the introduction of the VR6 only expanded the GTI legend, VW diminished its reputation during the 1996 model year by also offering the sport model with the base Golf's 115-hp engine. What a yawner. Other changes were limited to suspension tuning tweaks and a few minor trim variations. And the story was much the same for 1997.

The 1998 Golfs were the first available with side airbags and there were some new wheels for the GTI, but other changes were slight. There was already yet another Golf on the way.

Fourth-Generation Golf: 1999-2005

After successfully launching both its standard-setting Passat and trend-setting New Beetle in '98, Volkswagen was on a roll coming into 1999. The big question was whether the all-new Golf (and its companion, the Jetta) could sustain that momentum.

"Smoother, more stylish, all-galvanized sheet metal offers rounder edges," we wrote on our first exposure to the fourth Golf, "with a freshened face and larger, more distinctive taillamp openings. The Golf is available as a base two-door GL, an uplevel four-door GLS or sporty two-door GTI in either GLS trim or a hot GLX package. This fourth-generation Golf is slightly wider and more than 3 inches longer than its predecessor, with the wheelbase stretched 1.5 inches to 98.9. This allows for a larger interior, better rear headroom and overall legroom, and nearly a foot more cargo space."

Base power remained the 2.0-liter SOHC four making a so-so 115 hp while a 1.9-liter turbodiesel (which VW had already offered in the Passat and New Beetle) joined the lineup making 90 hp. The VR6 returned in the GTI GLX (the GTI GLS stayed with the regular 2.0-liter engine) and was now rated at 174 hp and only available with the five-speed manual transmission.

In our full test of the two-door GTI GLX and four-door Golf GLS we found much to criticize. "I found the GLS' 2.0-liter four-banger to be rather unrefined in terms of operation," wrote our tester, "and lacking low-end punch when mated to the sluggish four-speed automatic transmission, despite the fact that peak torque is made at a relatively low 2,600 rpm. Midrange acceleration for passing or merging was adequate, but downshifts from the slushbox were exactly that — slushy." Other criticisms included a lack of suspension tautness on both cars and ergonomic challenges that detracted from the interior's otherwise exceptional quality. Ultimately we concluded: "With improvement to interior ergonomics, a more sporting suspension and steering ratio for the GTI GLX, and slightly de-contented versions of both cars, Volkswagen would have landed the new Golf on the fairway, within chipping distance of the green. But as it stands, the new Golf is stuck deep in the rough."

We also tested the all-new '99 Cabrio (engineered following the familiar formula — that roll bar was still there) with Editor in Chief Karl Brauer reporting, "What used to be the Rabbit-based Cabriolet has been transformed into the Golf-based Cabrio, resulting in a superior convertible in every way (with the exception of the goofy 'Cabrio' name itself)." But he also found the drivetrain less than enchanting. "The stock 2.0-liter inline four makes an uninspired 115 hp at 5,200 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm. This is fewer horsepower than any of the Cabrio's competitors (but three more pound-feet of torque than the Miata). When you consider how capable the Cabrio is in terms of handling and braking, it seems almost criminal that this car receives a measly 115 horses, while far less capable ragtops like the Toyota Celica and Chevy Cavalier get 130 and 150 hp, respectively. This engine heaves the five-speed Cabrio from zero to 60 mph in a belabored 10.8 seconds. That's one of the slowest convertible times we have on record. Only the automatic versions of the Miata and Celica convertible are slower."

With the redesign still fresh, the apparent changes to the Golf family for 2000 were scant. But the evolution of the species made some significant progress at midyear as the GTI GLS now came with VW's turbocharged, 20-valve, 1.8-liter, 150-hp four as standard equipment. The "1.8T" seemed a natural in the GTI. "The turbo four delivers just enough power to make the GTI entertaining," we wrote during our first drive, "and during our run from sea level to more than 6,000 feet, elevation changes barely fazed it. This means that in cities like Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake, the GTI should scream ahead of normally aspirated cars choking on the thin atmosphere."

We also found that the suspension had evolved. "Unlike previous versions we've driven, this particular GTI also displayed an uncanny tautness, thanks to the new sport suspension. Stiffer springs and shocks, combined with a thicker rear stabilizer bar, help to keep body motions in check. Only successive undulations upset the balance when traveling at speed on the freeway, and though body roll is still present, it's satisfactorily controlled, allowing the GTI to inspire confidence when pushing hard in canyons."

The Golf line continued into 2001 with few changes as the 1.8T engine became available throughout the range. In our comparison test of six sport coupes, the GTI GLS 1.8T finished a strong (and surprising) second. "When it comes to performance, however, the GTI is less dominant," wrote editor Brent Romans. "Its turbocharged engine, a 1.8-liter four, is the same size as the (180 hp) Celica's but huffs up just 150 hp at 5,800 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 2,200 rpm. On the street, the 150 hp is not as big a detriment as you might think. There is some turbo lag below 2,000 rpm, but once you're past that, power delivery is smooth and linear. Compared to the Celica's hyperactive 1.8-liter engine, which needs to be revved to the wee of its life to get maximum performance, the GTI is much calmer when it goes about its business."

"The GTI feels faster than it really is, however. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.5 seconds, and the quarter-mile arrives in a leisurely 16.5 seconds at 84.3 mph. There are more than a few family sedans out there that can embarrass the GTI at stoplights. It might be wise to wait until the 2002 GTIs arrive, as their 1.8-liter engines will feature a boost in power, from 150 to 180 hp."

That boost in power arrived for 2002 on schedule and gave the Golf some needed gloss as its allure faded with age. The 2.8-liter VR6 was also revised to thump its torque-rich output up to a full 200 hp. A limited-edition "GTI 337" based on the 25th Anniversary GTI sold in Europe was also issued and featured 18-inch BBS wheels, a lowered suspension, a six-speed manual transmission, oversize brakes, Recaro seats, aluminum pedals, special trim and a "retro" GTI badge. Only 1,750 337s were made, none had sunroofs and all were painted silver. Why was it called "337"? Because VW's code name for the original GTI was "EA337."

The Cabrio was dropped at the end of the '02 model year as it was effectively replaced by the New Beetle Convertible.

During the 2003 model year, VW celebrated the 20th anniversary of the GTI in the United States with, you guessed it, a 20th-anniversary edition of the GTI. Essentially a slightly redecorated 337 with badges that evoked the classic Rabbit logo from the first American GTI, it seemed an appropriate 4,000-unit send-off for the Golf.

But what seems to be true is sometimes trumped by something unexpected. In the fourth-generation Golf's case that was the all-wheel-drive R32 introduced as a 2004 model. "Based on the aging Golf platform," reported Ed Hellwig in our road test, "the decked-out R32 gets a long list of upgrades that allow it to compete in a league dominated by Subaru's WRX and Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution. At the top of that list is the installation of a next-generation 3.2-liter VR6 engine that not only gives the R32 its name, it also adds a serious boost in power over the 2.8-liter VR6 found in the top-of-the-line GTI."

"Producing 240 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque, the new VR6 is not only larger in displacement it also uses an upgraded intake and exhaust system to get the increased volume of air moving in and out more quickly. The result is not only more power, but more power across a broader range of engine speeds, as this VR6 develops its peak torque between 2,800 and 3,200 rpm."

Comprehensively equipped and, unlike every other Golf in the U.S. range, made in Germany, the R32 was nowhere near cheap (pricing started at $29,100). But it was also an exciting car to drive and wasn't a boy-racer as much as a sophisticated road machine in Golf clothes. "So is it all worth it? As usual, it depends on what you're expecting. Buyers looking for an ultraquick street machine that answers to no one will be disappointed. Go head-to-head with an Evo or WRX STi and you'll get smoked. The R32 wasn't built to beat them and it won't."

The rest of the Golf line carried though the year intact and practically unchanged and will do so into 2005. But a new Golf and GTI are coming.

Fifth-Generation Golf: 2006

As this is written, the fifth-generation Golf has gone on sale in Europe but production at VW's Puebla facility for North American consumption is still months away. But what we get here will only differ from what they're getting there in detail.

The next Golf is significantly updated but still recognizable as a Golf. That means it's still front-wheel driven, still uses a conventional MacPherson strut front suspension and still offered in two- and four-door hatchback body styles. The wheelbase now stretches to a full 101.5 inches, and the base power plant is likely to be a new 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine making 150 hp (Golfs in Europe come with a range of diesel and naturally aspirated fours as well). The GTI will have a new 200-hp, 2.0-liter version of the turbocharged 20-valve four featuring direct gasoline injection coupled to a six-speed manual transmission.

During 2002 the 21,517,415th Golf was produced and the Golf passed the Beetle as the most produced model in VW history. The fifth-generation Golf will only extend that lead because, unlike Wells and the Four Fays, the Golf is a legend in its own right.

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