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The VW Golf is touching 40. So we drive it somewhere close to the top of the world to understand why the bloody thing has lasted this long

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If you shut your eyes, all you will hear is a collective gasp accompanied by the staccato clacking of the shutters of about a hundred cameras. Then there is a loud thud followed by the sound of a turbo engine gradually fading into the distance. I am at Colin’s Crest, a small patch deep in the forests of Karlstad, Sweden, as part of the Swedish leg of the annual World Rally Championship.

And if you provide visuals to that chain of sound, you will see VW’s Polo Rally car momentarily in the air as it flies over Colin’s Crest. It’s in the air for not even a second, but it always gets some gasps out of the crowd. Then a lot of flashes light up as 1.2 tonnes of car lands on the white, snow-covered forest floor, and the Polo tears its way through the woods and disappears out of sight. This chain of events takes barely a minute.

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And you will be astounded at the number of people who have been camping at Colin’s Crest – the name being a tribute to Colin McRae. Since they know cars are going to be flying past here, the Swedes have arrived with families, kids and camping gear in -10 degrees C. But in all that brouhaha over VW racing in only its second WRC race with the Polo, I saw the humble Golf standing by. I realised it’s been more than 40 years since VW thought, “Hmm, so what car can we make that will do so well and be so good that it can replace the Beetle?” And it was in 1974 that the Golf Mark I made it to the showrooms.

I am inside the Mark 7, the seventh and latest generation of the Golf. It costs a little more than the equivalent of around Rs 10 lakh in the UK and even lower in the US. But the quality inside is right up there with the Passat. As the WRC versions of the VW Polo, Ford Fiesta, Mini Countryman, Citroen DS were snaking down narrow hairpins in snow-laden forests that Vikings may have once strode through, I gave myself wide berth on an empty frozen lake, easing the longest running humble family hatch in the world along slippery corners.

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While I have driven humbler, cheaper small cars that are more fun than this 2.0-litre diesel-powered all-wheel-drive Golf, none have been this thorough and complete in terms of solidity, refinement and suppression of wind noise. In fact, it’s nothing short of a Passat or a Phaeton in a smaller body shell. The cabin is roomy enough for five, erm, dimensionally-gifted adults. Even the boot can take four full-sized suitcases – two in the floor, two in the parcel shelf. And that is thanks to the long-standing and most significant design element of the Golf – that broad C-pillar. It’s a design element like the bug-eyed headlights of a 911, or the kidney grille in a BMW.

It’s been a hallmark of the Golf for the last four decades and it’s what makes it one of the few hatches in the world that can seat five with lots of headroom and still have luggage space that’s one quarter the length of the car.

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It is not incredibly fun to drive this car. It never has been. This 2.0-litre engine makes a healthy 148bhp, power goes to all the wheels, and the six-speed manual has precise and short throws. But it’s not what you’d call a fun-to-drive car. I have even driven a GTI version of the Mark 5 a couple of years ago. And if you cut out the extra power, it never left you with the same joy you’d get driving a small Fiat or a Mini. This Golf, dancing on ice, has a neutral, but dull steering.

The lightness helps for quick lock-to-lock action, but on the road, it won’t top the charts for communication or chattiness. But in my few years as a motoring journalist, I have learnt one important thing: the car you love from your heart is not the one you would end up buying. I may enjoy a car over a road test of a couple of days, but it will likely be too expensive to buy or to run. It may not be the best for reliability, or it may have dodgy dealers. Or its fun element may be too taxing for a stress-free commute to work.

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Which is where the Golf shines. It doesn’t ask you to make compromises. It may not be fun, but it rides and handles incredibly well. And it’s never as dull and sterile as that other world bestseller, the Toyota Corolla. While it’s the most unglamorous, non-heroic thing to offer – something for everyone – I realise that’s what the Golf has been doing all these years. But in a manner that doesn’t suck the life and joy out of you.

And in all the markets it operates in, it’s the only car for people who don’t know what car to buy, don’t know what car they need, want a car that makes no statement or want one car for all their needs. In a Golf, you can pull up at a five-star hotel without looking like you are there only to use the loo. You can arrive in it at a donation drive without looking like an obnoxious wealthy idiot. And you can drive it to an environmentalists meet without looking like a prime contributor to its depletion.

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I can’t think of any other car that can do that. Urm… no. There isn’t. Is it coming to India? No, and yes. No, because the Golf has evolved way too far to be an under-`10 lakh hatch. And we Indians don’t take kindly to hatches that cost seven figures. And yes, because we already have the Audi TT, Skoda Laura, VW Jetta… cars that are very nearly the Golf underneath. So every time this humble one-car-for-all-purposes continues cutting more cakes and blowing more candles, you are part of the party too.

The numbers
Engine: 1968cc 4-cyl turbo-diesel
Power: 148bhp at 3500rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1750-3000rpm
Transmission: 6M, AWD
0-100kph: 8.6secs (claimed)
Top speed:  211kph (claimed)
Weight: 1449kg
Boot Capacity: 380 litres (min) 1270 litres (max)
Price: Rs 12 lakh (approx, not expected in India)

The verdict
This is all the car you will ever need. While it’s never coming to India, all its platforms will

(Words: Sriram Narayanan)

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