Volkswagen Golf’s sales decline signals how much the market is changing

Being good at everything made the German hatchback a market success over the past decades. Now, will that be enough to keep up with the future ones?

Volkswagen Golf GTI of seventh and first generations
Pickup version of the Volkswagen Rabbit — the Golf was sold in North America with that name during its first and fifth generations

Most companies work with products of two types. Some are innovative, designed as the result of an extensive work to better understand the needs and desires of consumers and what the competitors are currently offering. Others are traditional and have been offered for a long time with little or no changes at all. They might’ve been innovative once, but that’s no longer their strongest sales argument. Traditional products rely on being good at what they do and, even more, on keep doing just what they do, neither more nor less. In other words, they rely on being consistent.

While the purpose of offering innovative products is easy to understand, that of traditional ones should never be underestimated. There are customers who can’t afford trendy models of the size they need, others who simply don’t like those, and others who want the product merely for its function — when it comes to cars, non-enthusiasts who only want to go from A to B. In cases like those, people expect their cars to be effective: they don’t care for emotional perks, such as breathtaking design, but won’t tolerate emotional flaws — like little internal space because of the aforementioned design.

Second generation of Golf’s sedan sibling, the Volkswagen Jetta
Second-generation Volkswagen Golf in the Country trim

The Volkswagen Golf has always been a great example of traditional product. Getting one will bring you comfort, performance, safety, style and value in amounts perfectly suitable to its market category, which is the midsize one among generalist automakers. And if the hatchback model isn’t a good fit for you, remember it has already spawned cabriolet, crossover (the Tiguan), sedan (the Jetta) and station wagon (the Variant) siblings, each of those in multiple trim levels. Every thorough redesign comes with improvements on all those aspects, but they only make the Golf better, never different.

Years ago, it was easy to find competitors with unattractive design, excessive fuel consumption, poor build quality and/or other flaws. The bar was low enough to make simple consistency worthy of praise. Since the Golf was not only free of such flaws but also actually good at all those aspects, it was easy to understand why did it become the legend as it’s known today. People came to see it as a reference in its own category and, to some extent, in the whole automotive market. However, if you analyze sales reports of the past few months, you’ll notice that it has been falling in several countries. Why is that?

Third-generation Volkswagen Golf in the Cabrio version
Third-generation Volkswagen Golf in the Harlekin trim

One way to describe this change is adapting Abraham Maslow’s famous theory. Golf became a success because the aforementioned flaws of its competitors meant that they failed to meet basic needs of their target audience; they could only attract customers who wanted or could afford any of them. Obviously, such a situation wouldn’t last long: over the years, the other automakers focused somewhat less on emotion and innovation and became better at the basics. Fiat is a good example of that: in the early 2000s, it abandoned the Brava/Bravo’s flamboyant style for the Stilo’s austerity.

Since those efforts directly addressed the issues which plagued the cars, their overall standard rose significantly; by the beginning of the current decade, midsize models designed in Asia, Europe and North America had reached a similar level of quality and were rushing to increase it. At first, such evolution made competition more serious than ever for the Golf, but it managed to stay strong. After all, Volkswagen gradually made it one of its breadwinners, so it made sure to keep its main qualities. However, the automotive market kept changing, and doing so more intensely as the days passed.

Fourth-generation of the Volkswagen Golf in the Variant version
GT trim of the Volkswagen Golf “4.5” — a facelift performed on the fourth generation exclusively for Latin America

Besides the creation of new body styles and market categories (namely crossovers), midsize cars have changed as a whole and have lost sales for another reason: Golf’s competitors started to follow traditional-car guidelines without entirely dropping those of the innovative cars. In general, each of them offers the aforementioned consistency along with a distinctive character which is specifically tailored to meet the latest demands, such as exotic design or big cabin. The Golf, on the other hand, remained competing on all fronts pretty much equally.

In other words, if you want a family-oriented model, there are Hyundai i30 and Peugeot 308. If you’re a more rational buyer, you’ll think of the Citroën C4 and the Fiat Tipo. If you fancy impressive looks, DS 4 and Renault Mégane. If you prefer a sportier character, Chevrolet Cruze and Opel Astra, and so on. The Golf does well at all those aspects, of course, but never to the point of standing out. Consistency has always been great, but it’s no longer enough to make a midsize car thrive. Lacking that distinctive character is taking an increasing toll on Golf’s sales, especially among young buyers.

Fifth-generation Volkswagen Golf in R32 trim
Volkswagen Golf GTD of the sixth-generation, which is a heavy redesign of the previous one

In a first moment, one could consider solving that by giving the Golf an edge like those — the easiest one would be sportiness, despite being a cliché. The thing is, the Golf became famous precisely for not having that edge; changing that would decharacterize it too much. In the late 1990s, Ford and Opel faced very similar issues with the Escort and the Kadett, and we all know what was done. Focus and Astra had no traditions at all to respect, so they were able to respond much better to the upcoming trends of the market. All the other midsize models were released around the same time of those two or later.

Because of its signature consistency, the Volkswagen Golf is awesome. When analyzed alone, it has enough qualities to deserve compliments even from die-hard fans of other cars. The problem is that its strongest sales argument went from irresistible to mundane and it’s difficult to revert that; it’s getting difficult to keep this product attractive. If the Germans ever consider creating an all-new replacement, they could use the I.D. electrified family as a starting point. The automaker which once replaced the Beetle is surely capable of creating something good enough to repeat that success in the upcoming times.

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