In this second and last installment of the two part series (Parte Um here,) we see the Gol fall from the height of sportiness to the profound depths of strippo hell. Like that Greek hero, it lived on to rise and shine again. However, it now finds itself in the battle of its life.
In 1999, in what VW exaggeratedly called the third generation, the Gol and the Parati were restyled. In a complete flip-flop from the previous door austerity policy, and just as incoherent, they are now available only in 4 doors. However, a basic 1.0 Gol called Special remained with the old design as an entry-level option (and a way to fight Fiat’s Uno). The Saveiro would be redesigned in 2000. Internally, the whole line benefited from a more Audi-esque instrument cluster with VW’s signature blue and red lighting.
For the first time in Brazil, and maybe the world, a 1.0 engine was fitted with a turbo. It worked rather well with some (though minor) lag. This extraordinary engine produced 112 hp and 15.8 m.kgf of torque. It had a top speed of 191 km/h and in the hands of a good pilot, could reach 100 km/h in less than 10 seconds. Surprisingly, peak torque was reached at only 2,000 RPM.
Lesser versions also evolved. The 1.0 16v reached 76 hp and the 8v version was now good for 65 hp. Against its greatest competitor, the Fiat Palio, most people (and comparos) agreed that the Gol performed better, had better stability but lost in comfort, ride quality and cost-benefit.
As the 00s began, and the price of gasoline rose and rose, ethanol slowly became competitive again. All makers in Brazil were in a race to present the first flex fuel Brazilian car (something that had existed in the US since 1991, but limited to E85 and not E100 like in Brazil). Ford in fact was the first one to present a prototype to the press in the beginning of 2002. However, the Americans said the car was not ready for production.
In March 2003, VW again surprised the market and introduced the first Brazilian built flex fuel engines and cars. Detractors said VW rushed it to market. Something that apparently was borne out as the first VWs to come out with the flex fuel system were pretty rough (and subject to failures). VW though decided to rush and push it through and earn the right to brag about it. To produce such a system, many changes had to be made to the car. As the ethanol in Brazil contains water, all parts of the engine in contact with the fuel must be made rust-proof. VW also announced changes such as new heavy-duty gasoline cold start system, intake manifold, fuel injectors, valves, valve command, spark plugs and fuel pump. As this was the first system, VW was conservative with the compression ratio and kept it at 10:1. This was of course a compromise, since it’s low for alcohol and relatively high for gasoline and not optimal for either. Thus, total power increased little if at all. Torque followed suit.
The first car with the flex system was the 1.6. Other engines later received the same treatment (with tweaks). In 2005, the all important 1.0s had their turn. The 16v option disappeared in 2004 as did the 1.0 turbo. No, the turbo proved to last, but the engine had a chronic problem in the valve variator pulley. VW chose to let this promising engine die instead of fixing it (maybe it was afraid consumers would sue if they would improve the system, and admit a design flaw – VW never admitted there was a problem).
During these years, VW also lost some of the sporting luster it had so competently built since the 80s. A slew of external factors contributed, such as lower consumer interest (due to high insurance rates for the poor GTs, GTIs, and TSis, and high gas prices), but VW also made some internal mistakes. Though arguably better looking than the first Gol bolinha, this version lacked some sportiness (no 3-doors). The hot versions became (very expensive) option packages and Brazilians are loathe to pay for (even modestly priced) packages.
All of this, plus the continuous onslaught of ever better competitors really put some big chinks in the Gol’s armor. Problems such as the ones in the Gol Turbo and the poor performance of VW’s cold weather start systems did much to open consumers’ eyes.
In 2005, amid much fanfare and media hype, VW launched the so-called Generation 4 Gol. Though facelifts to the back and front ends modernized the exterior design, the interior was cheapened almost out of recognition. Now a hint of Gol Special touched all Gols, even the top of the line 1.6, which was the biggest engine that survived. The Gol got the Fox’s miniscule and often ridiculed instrument cluster (losing any Audi-esquessness). The plastics were worse than most of the competition. Several convenience and comfort items were not even offered anymore. The Gol’s brothers suffered similar fates. However, for them, the 1.8 engines were kept alive.
This was truly the Gol’s low point. One action taken by VW in its struggle to keep the Gol in first was to lay on the special versions and theme-oriented ones. There was one for the World Cup. There was a Rallye version that eventually became a version in and of itself. Though it managed to keep first place in sales, oftentimes this was by default. Fiat at the time simply did not have the production capacity to overcome the Gol.
It was during this time that the Italians set out to re-organize themselves in South America. The plant in Argentina came back on-line freeing up space at the huge facility in Betim, Brazil. It seemed the Palio would have a chance to beat the Gol. Industry watchers bet on it. My sources in the industry would call me and tell me that Fiat was ordering more parts than Volkswagen. Fiat though was not fast enough.
Volkswagen was faster this time. In July 2008, it launched the Gol’s third generation in technical terms. Marketing people referred to the new Gol as the G5. This one was the real deal. VW seemed to be coming back to its roots. An interesting, professional design. Some see traces of BMW in this Gol’s lines. Apart from design, mechanically, this car had little in common with the two previous generations. VW finally bowed down to the obvious and found a way to mount the car’s engine transversely. This freed up much needed space up front and brought down the cowl.
Internally, a more sophisticated gauge cluster reappeared. This time the steering wheel and seat aligned, though the pedals were still quite offset to the left. All Gols now offered seat height adjustment. Content like air-bags and ABS were again on offer (incredibly, VW had taken these off the options list in 2006!). In higher trim levels, some sophistication was back. However, the 3-door version has never been produced, though a part of the market wants one and the fact that it would allow VW to offer the car at a lower price point (making it that much more affordable to a bigger swath of Brazilians). However, VW, partly to compensate, resurrected the Gol Special idea. Now the G5 is sold side by side with the G4. By the way, it is possible to get the G4 in either 3 or 5 doors (though the G5 isn’t, no sir! Only 5 doors for that one!).
Mechanically, this car offered a quantum-leap. While all previous Gols and siblings had hung on, tenaciously, to that first Polo platform, the new Gol finally rested on a much improved platform. Its underpinnings are now known as the 4.5 platform as it combines elements of the Polo’s fourth and fifth generation platforms (compromises, compromises). This means the car drives much better. Rough it always was. Now it’s rough, but there is an added element of sophistication. It attacks curves aggressively, goes down a straight line with authority. Its handling is predictable and the steering is quite communicative. Though it won (almost) all comparos done by car magazines and sites, some consumers still feel the car is too harsh. They prefer the lower capacities but greater comforts of, say, a Ford Fiesta. Also, a whole generation had experimented with other brands (as VW no longer was absolute master of the market) and looked down on VW’s low seating position. Boy racers and playboys again had their car. Those who valued comfort would find better alternatives elsewhere.
In terms of engine, the car came with a totally new 1.6 and a re-worked 1.0. The 1.6 belongs to VW’s EA-111 family line of motors. It produces 104 or 106 hp depending on whether its running on Brazilian gasoline or ethanol. Torque is at 15.4 or 15.6 m.kgf. The 1.0 was an evolution. It now put out 72 or 76 hp (9.7 or 10.6 m.kgf). These numbers are very, very good for a 1.0L engine.
In September of the same year, after a hiatus of 13 years, the Voyage re-debuted. It caused a good deal of sticker shock, and though it basically repeats the formula the Gol uses, it has had trouble getting into the top 10. That is probably because the compact sedan’s public is different from the hatch’s. They are a more mature audience and more attuned to comfort. They also weigh more carefully such things as cost benefit. Due to this, the Voyage has never achieved more than third place in its particular segment. It is routinely outsold by Chevy’s Classic (due to price) and Fiat’s Siena (price being one of many reasons).
The really new Saveiro would come along in August 2009. The design was much more modern, the mechanicals likewise. Finally, VW listened to its own clinics and offered the Saveiro with simple and extended cab versions. This helped the Saveiro distance itself from Chevy’s Montana. Fiat though would not stand still and besides simple and extended cab, innovated and offered (possibly) the world’s first double cab compact trucklet. This has helped the Strada outsell the Saveiro 2:1.
The Parati you ask? Well it seems VW has forgotten it. The station wagon on which VW now concentrates is derived from the Fox. It has not received the new Gol’s re-design and mechanicals. Its future is uncertain.
So now the story ends for now. The Gol is once again the king of the mountain. Nobody comes close to it, though many would beg to differ. As a car it is noticeably better (depending on your priorities) than everyone else. But…
The G5 proved to have severe teething problems. Windshields exploded in the middle of night due to the normal thermal variations of night and day. VW didn’t recall, though they changed the windshields of those who complained inside the 1 year warranty. Later, after the cases became public, VW was shamed into changing the windshields of cars out of warranty, too (just ask my Dad. His company car Gol’s windshield exploded twice).
More sinister problems occurred with the 1.0s. You see, these cars are mission critical for any car maker with mass market pretensions in Brazil. They make up almost 50 percent of the market. Young ones usually get their first taste of driving in one (and form opinions that last a long time). Families sit up close and personal and travel many long hours in them (remember this, Brazil is a continental country) on often dangerous and uncomfortable roads. Company car fleets are made up in large part by these cars. They are the cars most readily available at rental companies’ airport stands.
So, apparently, VW failed to test the car sufficiently in the so-called “mommy runs”. These involve frequent starts and drives of less than 5 km or 15 minutes. They had changed the oil’s specification. It seems the new oil didn’t withstand those conditions well and lost its lubricating properties. Engines exhibited anything from intense and unpleasant noise to outright failure. At first, VW denied any wrongdoing or responsibility and in fact, appears not to have known what caused the problems. As the cases mounted and the government started making threatening noises, VW was forced to lower its head. However, in very convoluted language it admitted nothing, but called owners in to change the oil! As was later documented, VW would also look at the engines and change only the parts they thought were damaged (almost never admitting to change the whole engine at the first complaint). Many owners had to go to the dealers two, three, four or more times in order to get the engines in their cars right.
This fact was one of the many that contributed to VW’s problems in Brazil. Until today, people won’t buy the first year cars unless the owner can prove he had taken corrective action. However, many people claimed this episode would soon be forgotten. It might as well have been, but in 2010 the new Uno came along.
Fiat has now started to rectify it production capacity to meet demand. In February 2011, the new Uno beat out the Gol. March appears to be a repeat.
If history teaches anything, it teaches that it’ll never end. The Harvard professor was wrong. The Gol is now facing its most serious threat. A redesign is on the way (to give it the company’s new corporate face). Will the Gol soon repeat VW’s trajectory? From absolute first place to a hotly contested first place?
The stakes are high. Much money has been and is being invested. Hyundai is coming. So is Toyota. So is Honda (probably). The Chinese are here but are not a credible threat for now. The winner won’t take it all, but will carve out a very important place in the Brazilian market.
Let the games go on!