America's Brief Infatuation With The Volkswagen Golf Is Fizzling Fast

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
america s brief infatuation with the volkswagen golf is fizzling fast

Midst the turmoil of a diesel emissions scandal and the crisis that followed in late 2015, there was a quiet but striking development inside Volkswagen’s U.S. showrooms.

Americans were buying Golfs. A lot of Golfs. More Golfs than at any point since Ronald Reagan was president. Volkswagen Golf volume nearly doubled, year-over-year, in 2015, and Volkswagen nearly sustained that level in 2016 before rising to a 31-year high of 68,978 sales in 2017.

A trend it was not. Seven months into 2018, Golf sales are nosediving.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to the Golf. As Volkswagen’s Jetta transitions into seventh-generation form, deliveries of the company’s best seller are down 40 percent. The Jetta’s on track for its first sub-100K U.S. sales year since 2008. Jetta sales have fallen by roughly two-thirds just since 2012.

The Passat, meanwhile, is nearing the end of the sixth-generation sedan’s tenure, and sales of the midsize sedan are in freefall. Passat volume is down 35 percent in 2018, year-over-year, a harsh decline following a half-decade in which U.S. Passat sales slid by more than half.

Yet despite these significant downturns, Volkswagen of America sales are actually up 8 percent in 2018, a noteworthy improvement in a largely stagnant market, an increase that stems from a 5-percent uptick in 2017. At this rate of growth, Volkswagen is on track to sell nearly 370,000 vehicles in 2018, which would be a five-year high.

No thanks to the Golf.

Nearly across the board, in nearly every corner of the lineup, at nearly every level of Golf hierarchy, sales are falling.

Regular Golf hatchbacks? They’re down 45 percent compared with 2017.

The iconic GTI? It remains the biggest seller in the Golf range, but sales are down 17 percent.

So much for the romance of wagons. Including the SportWagen and Alltrack, Golf wagon volume in 2018 is precisely half as strong as it was in 2017.

The e-Golf is not spared. Sales of the electric hatch are down 64 percent, a loss of a couple hundred units per month, on average.

The low-volume Golf R is the exception to the rule. A 4-percent rise resulted in 88 additional vehicles between January and July — a drop in the bucket considering the 16,403-unit decline in overall Golf sales, a 37-percent drop.

At this point in 2017, the Golf family accounted for nearly a quarter of all Volkswagen sales in the United States. That figure is down to 13 percent for 2018.

It’s only fair to blame changing tastes. Passenger car sales are falling everywhere. America’s five most popular cars — Camry, Civic, Corolla, Accord, Altima — are all selling less often this year than last. In fact, 17 of America’s 18 best-selling cars are in decline. Only one passenger car more popular than the Golf is declining more rapidly. That car, of course, is Volkswagen’s own Jetta, which is understandably struggling in the face of a generational changeover.

Fortunately for Volkswagen, the shortcomings produced by the Golf and its VeeDub car cohorts have been overcome (to date) by in-demand utility vehicles. Incidentally, after initially backing its SUVs with maximum strength, Volkswagen now stands ready to stand behind all of its vehicles equally (e-Golf aside), with a six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

That change for MY2018 is not making a difference.

The Tiguan and Atlas produced just under half of Volkswagen’s U.S. sales in 2018’s first seven months, up from a trivial 13 percent a year ago. The Tiguan is now the brand’s No.1 seller, outperforming the Jetta by a 1.3-to-1 margin. Meanwhile, the Atlas outsells the entire Golf range by more than 1,000 units per month.

We shouldn’t be so surprised. America’s brief, three-year fascination with the Golf wasn’t really much of a fascination at all. At fewer than 70,000 sales, the vast Golf range attracted only one buyer for every 5.5 Civic owners, for example. It’s been 36 years since Volkswagen managed to sell 100,000 Golfs in a calendar year in America.

The Golf is a top seller in a variety of markets around the world. But America will not soon be one of those countries.

[Image: Volkswagen]

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2 of 69 comments
  • Plee Plee on Aug 22, 2018

    Most autos are struggling right now, the sales are obviously shifting quickly to trucks, Suvs etc. At the Manheim auction where I work part time, buyers swarm over trucks and Suvs even with 80K plus miles and are paying truly outrageous prices for them. Cars are cheap if there are even buyers for them. As to VW, 4 months ago I bought a used 17 Jetta SE 5speed CPO and for my daughter a 15 Jetta SE 5 speed CPO. They are very enjoyable to drive and so far have been completely trouble free and have not been back to the dealer yet. Time will tell if they remain reliable but they sure are more engaging to drive than virtually any other car in their class.

  • HotPotato HotPotato on Aug 24, 2018

    The VW Golf is the king of perceived quality in the class, particularly among people who have driven one...but it's pricey, availability is spotty, the latest safety tech is generally AWOL. The new Tiguan is impressive BTW, a great improvement over the last one, which like the Golf was a good car but a bad value. But like the Atlas, Passat, and Jetta (not the Golf so much, interestingly), its styling seems to take us back to "1979 VW" thinking where the VW version of a car was deliberately given dowdy styling to make the price jump to the Audi version more palatable. Trouble is, North America is not that protected Euro market of yesteryear: the Koreans will be happy to sell you exuberant styling for less money. (It is a dubious strategy even at home actually, where the French will sell you dead-sexy styling all day every day, even in segments that are really hard to style well, like mini CUVs.)