WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - Volkswagen unveiled its Golf 8 on Thursday night, with this generation having taken the greatest technological leap in its history, featuring a new fully digitised cabin as well as advanced connectivity and driver assist features.

Needless to say, the Golf has blazed a trail upmarket through its eight iterations.

The latest generations are true premium hatchbacks in their own right, and a far cry from that basic but much-loved Golf 1 that first hit the scene abroad in 1974, and in South Africa four years later, sounding the death knell for the Beetle.

With over 35 million Golfs sold since then, it is by far the most successful Volkswagen of all time, and one of the most successful cars full stop. 

But how exactly did the Volkswagen Golf evolve through the years?

This calls for a little trip down memory lane.

Golf 1

Hitting the scene in 1974 as a more practical, front-wheel-drive successor to the long-serving rear-engined Beetle, the Giorgio Giugiaro designed hatchback was an instant hit, passing the million sales milestone in just two years. 

That success was emulated on South African shores when the Golf finally commenced production on the Uitenhage line in 1978. 

The Golf range expanded through the years and in 1982 South Africans got a taste of the modern day hot hatch when the GTI hit the streets, powered by a 1.8-litre engine that produced 82kW.

Of course, the Golf 1 also outlived the four subsequent generations in South Africa as it evolved into the Citi Golf, which remained in production until 2009. With its bright colours and constant refinements through the years (it even got an airbag towards the end of its life), VWSA certainly showed the world how to keep an old car young.

Golf 2

The second-generation hatchback quickly earned the 'jumbo Golf’ nickname, as it was a somewhat bigger and more mature package - leaving a void in the entry level market that was quickly filled by the aforementioned Citi Golf in SA.

The Golf 2 hit the South African market in 1984, and a new GTI quickly followed suit, eventually enticing hot hatch fans with a 16-valve version that became somewhat legendary at the time, and which made a name for itself on local circuits in the Stannic Group N series.

Overseas, the Golf 2 was credited with bringing technologies like ABS brakes, power steering and the regulated catalytic converter to the “lower medium class.”

Golf 3

The Golf continued its push upmarket with the third-generation that was launched in Europe in late 1991, with South African sales commencing a year later. 

This was the first Golf to offer front airbags, in overseas markets at least, as these now-essential safety features were not part of the deal in South Africa, although the car did at least have improved crumple zones.

This generation of Golf won't be remembered for its GTI - only an eight valve was offered in SA and it had a bigger body to lug around - but we did at least get treated to the first ever six-cylinder Golf. Who could ever forget the VR6?

Golf 4

Revealed in late 1997, the fourth-generation Golf had an evolutionary design, but it was also a far classier car, particularly inside where it had upmarket vibes that put most luxury sedans at the time to shame. This was the first truly fancy Golf.

The Golf 4 reached South Africa in 1999 and brought diesel power back to the local range for the first time since the Golf I, but this time with a turbocharged kick that proved a hit with buyers.

GTI fans were also given some much-needed appeasement with a brand new 110kW turbocharged 1.8-litre engine, but it didn’t stop there - a 132kW version gave the aging range a potent blast into the sunset in 2003.

Even luckier European buyers were treated to a Golf R32 with a top speed of 250km/h and the first-ever DSG dual-clutch gearbox, which was quite revolutionary at the time.

Golf 5

The fifth generation continued to climb the ladder of sophistication, particularly as far as its road manners were concerned. For the first time the Golf adopted a fully independent multi-link rear axle to achieve a better compromise between ride comfort and road holding. The Golf 5’s laser-welded body also improved torsional rigidity by 35 percent, according to Volkswagen.

South Africa got the fifth-gen in 2004, and a year later came what is considered by many to be the best GTI ever with its agile road holding a 147kW 2-litre turbo engine.

South Africans looking for something even more special were treated to an R32 for the first time, this one boasting a 184kW normally aspirated six-cylinder engine and 4Motion all-wheel drive.

Most SA models, however, made do with older-generation eight-valve normally aspirated petrol engines, which seemed a bit unfair when markets abroad got to try out a new Twincharged 1.4 TSI turbopetrol, which was both supercharged and turbocharged.

Golf 6

This generation, launched abroad in 2008 and in South Africa the following year, was considered to be something of a re-skin of its predecessor - many dubbing it the Golf 5.1 - but it did bring the Golf up to speed with VW's latest design language, particularly at the front end where the grille connected the headlights once again.

Golf 6 also introduced new driver assist gadgets, such as Park Assist, Hill Start Assist, dynamic main beam control and DCC adaptive chassis control.

For South Africans, this generation brought a greater spread of VW's direct injection turbopetrol engines, with two versions of VW's 1.4 TSI replacing the previous Golf's outdated normally aspirated 2-litre. 

The range also offered a turbodiesel BlueMotion that sipped just 3.8 l/100km on the EU combined cycle and at the other end of the scale the GTI got a slight power increase to 155kW.

Golf 7

Revealed in 2012 and hitting SA in 2013, the seventh Golf followed an evolutionary design path once again, while continuing to reach new levels of sophistication. But most significantly, it was the first VW product to be based on the company’s new MQB modular platform, which helped it shave 100kg off the kerb weight.

It also gained a raft of new technologies that filtered down from upper segments, including active cruise control, second-generation Dynamic Chassis Control, fatigue detection, lane assist and more.

The hot and spicy versions continued on their usual path of progression, with the GTI and R both powered by evolved 2-litre turbo engines offering 169kW and 228kW respectively.

Golf 8

The all-new Golf, revealed for the first time on Thursday, has been fully digitised, with virtually all of its displays and controls now being digital, while an advanced new voice control system and head-up display are offered too.

In Europe it also introduces advanced car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure technologies as well as new semi-autonomous driver assistance features.

Customers abroad can now choose from five different hybrid versions, ranging from 48V mild hybrid set-ups right through to high-performance plug-in hybrids.

The Golf 8 is likely to reach South African shores in late 2020. You can read more about it here.

IOL Motoring