COAL: 1996 VW Golf – Going Green

We were to take the 1996 VW Golf for our honeymoon in Livingston, Guatemala. I had owned the car for a good 11 years (I take very literally Car of a Lifetime), and we looked forward to the trip, as it was our second visit to the picturesque Atlantic coast of Guatemala. With the A/C recently fixed after years of nonfunctioning (no rush on that job from my part), the car would make an ideal cruiser.

I bought the Golf in 2008 while I still lived with my father at the sugar mill. Part of the idea was to give some rest to my long suffering ’68 Beetle (for those keeping track, yes, I still own it). On the other hand, to finally enjoy decades of passenger comfort advancements; a safer cabin, softer suspension, etc. I bought the Golf not without some hesitation, after suffering quite some with a 1980 Rabbit years prior. Adding to these worries, memories of Californians complaining of VW’s unreliability all throughout the 90’s.

The car found its way to the sugar mill yards.

Still, I wished to purchase something slightly out of the ordinary in El Salvador. Not rare, mind you, but not quite so commonplace. Cars of the early 90’s called my attention in general, as they were not too electronic (the bane of local mechanics), and spare parts not too rare. Tercel 4WD wagons were in my short list too, but none in good condition materialized. The 4WD layout and slightly raised body sounded attractive, considering the poor condition of local roads.

A rare sight for US eyes, the Golf 3rd gen glovebox.

The ’96 Golf was unlike the US and European versions, as it was the Mexican assembled version aimed to developing countries. It had a 1.6 engine, glovebox, no ABS, manual crank windows, and fewer electronic doodads (to think that AE engine has Audi origins). Regardless, the Golf was sold as a compact luxury vehicle in these lands. No matter what VW did on cost cutting, the car still carried a premium; Mexican assembly or not. For the lower end of the market VW’s Brazilian Gol did the duties.

The ‘96 Golf was in remarkable condition, a low 60K mileage in the odometer. Thanks to that the first 4 years of ownership had scant mechanical work done. However, at purchase the car’s suspension needed quite a bit of work (more on that later), and the A/C was shot (and it remained so for a good 10 years). I spent $500 on suspension work and with that, the car was set. Whatever problems VW had with early Golf 3r gen Mexican assembly, by ’96 they must had been sorted out. Either that or use in local traffic was less taxing on the car’s engineering, for the Golf has remained fairly reliable these many years.

Unusual Salvadorian traffic.

Time for the newlyweds to take the road. A scant 350 mile drive was ahead of us, from San Salvador to Livingston. Under the less than perfect Central American roads, this meant 12 hours of driving, half of it in fairly solitary jungle terrain. We packed our bags on the cargo area and took off, expecting fairly smooth travelling. We aimed to arrive to Rio Dulce that night, where we would board a boat next morning to take us Livingston (the town isn’t connected to Guatemala’s roads). We were anxious to see once again this colorful and picturesque settlement surrounded by white sand beaches and filled with Garifuna culture.

Puerto Barrios was not our favorite during our first visit.

Livingston and Puerto Barrios are the only cities of importance in Guatemala’s Atlantic coast. Puerto Barrios is the economically significant one and a point of entry to Livingston. On our first trip, with the Beetle, we arrived to Puerto Barrios only to meet a scummy, unkempt harbor town that smelled funny and had one too many mopeds zipping by recklessly. The only place of interest in Puerto Barrios was the hotel we stayed in, the Hotel del Norte. The hotel’s old abandoned wing had its old wooden walls crooked, looking not unlike a Picasso sketch. Never minding the “Do not cross” signs, we stepped in, and had a hard time keeping our balance as we were thrown off by the Daliesque distorted perspectives.

Being wiser on this second going, we eschewed Puerto Barrios and instead took the fully green route. From Rio Dulce, located in the outskirts of the Petén jungle, we would travel by boat 18 miles to Livingston while crossing fairly pristine nature.

Green indicates recycable plastics that lurk underneath Golfs and Jettas.

VW was also going fully green by the early 90’s. As is its wont, VW was in quite a bit of upheaval while the Golf 3rd gen was being developed. While in Europe the company had consolidated its hold, US sales were tanking, with an alarmingly low 43,000 units sold in 1993. There were further woes, the company’s operational costs were higher than competitors, and profits slimmer by unit. By the early 90’s, VW was once again losing money and in search of ways to get out of its own mess.

One of VW’s angles was green tech (ironic, considering the eventual turn of events), as well as passenger packaging. A higher emphasis was to be placed in efficiency, performance, passenger safety, and comfort. The MK3 Golf followed this brief; the vehicle was engulfed with recyclable plastics, while fuel economy was attended as well with an electric version finding small distribution. Engine choices varied widely, from economy to performance. Bucking the “lower and wider” mantra, the car sat taller, bringing a more commanding seating position. Styling was chunky, with thick window pillars engineered to meet upcoming crash safety regulations. Aerodynamic efficiency was higher as well, aided by a rather pronounced tumblehome and lack of rain gutters (In the tropics, this meant getting soaked when opening the door during pouring rain. I know what I’m talking about).

The Golf, at work in San Salvador.

At purchase, the Golf turned out to be a comfortable and spirited daily driver. I was pleasantly surprised, as I remembered the cold reception some critics gave it when new. At the time, reviewers bemoaned the softening of the vehicle and its increasing weight; also the thick vision-blocking pillars (They had NO idea what was coming). For the average human –i.e. me- the car was an enjoyable daily driver, easy to live with. Instead of the antsy teenager it had once been, it was now a youthful responsible professional.

On hindsight, considering the myriad of electronics involved today, the car still offered a tactile driving experience; with a good mix of responsiveness, a non-punishing ride, and sufficient reliability. Steering feel was good, with some nice feedback. Suspension worked nicely on sinuous roads. On city driving, it got me everywhere in relative comfort. Interior ergonomics were good as well, even if some plastics were questionable (one has to treat them kindly). Granted, it was no sports car; push it hard and it will show. But does one have to pull 1G while doing groceries?

The 3rd gen was actually my least favorite Golf design. Ownership brought me to change my mind.

Back to the road, on our way to Livingston. From El Salvador the roads to Guatemala are always filled with traffic. While flowing, one needs to keep on the lookout for pedestrians, livestock and large potholes. This last is the bane of modern FWD vehicles in these lands. CV joints suffer, shock absorbers buckle, bushings bust, control arms bend, etc. they all suffer on these roads, making maintenance expensive (on that sense primitive vehicles like the Beetle are better suited). Once every 2-3 years a good chunk of money is spent in keeping everything in working order. Is either constant investment like that, or like most Salvadorians, drive the car with a shot suspension and leave the matter for the next owner to attend (like I DID on purchase).

We entered Guatemala by its northernmost border with El Salvador, a crossing used mostly for commerce. Lined up trailers announced we had arrived to checkpoint. Unlike previous disastrous crossings I was glad to find that this time, while slow, we got through with no major upsets. We entered Guatemala taking the two lane road that led north. Traffic was light, while the occasional mansion appeared out of nowhere in the desolated area. What? Better not look too closely into that. Some criminal enterprise was surely at play.

Climate was hot as the area is subtropical dry forest region. The hills around us were a monotonous sight of brown shrubs with hardy slim trees. Dull hours of driving were ahead of us. On the positive side, the A/C was working good. It proved a good investment to bring that system back to life, and it was a novelty for us to be indulging in such hedonistic pleasures.

The two lane road towards Rio Dulce.

As we reached the midpoint of our journey we came across the Atlantic Coast exit ramp. It only took a few miles for the landscape to change substantially, as heavy tropical forest became the norm. It was mile after mile of jungle, with little human presence, and a two lane road that stretched unimpeded for miles. We were entering one of Guatemala’s least developed areas, as throughout history these humid lowlands had been largely ignored by both the Mayan empire and the Spanish Conquerors. Instead, the Atlantic coast became ideal for law evading individuals; particularly pirates and English slave traders who settled in a few illegal harbors along the coast, from Guatemala to Panama.

(The Spanish Crown would eventually negotiate with the English to stop meddling in these outposts. Belize was created in an exchange where the Brits should keep that portion of land, and leave all else alone.)

Livingston, from the boat.

The origins of the Garifunas are placed on this period of time. Some settlements were apparently created by slaves running away from human traders. Others, by survivors of sunk trading ships. These runaways, now referred to by the blanket moniker of Garifunas, go from Belize to Panama, and embody the African heritage of Central America. Generally unacknowledged in Central America’s daily affairs, these regions live generally isolated from the Ladino cultures of the Pacific Coast. These settlements represent the spirit of the word outpost; getting by with hardly a worry on what politics, economics and else, happen around the world.

After crossing a few miles of oil palm tree plantations, we arrived to Rio Dulce by sunset. We found our lodging located under the large bridge of Rio Dulce (should one stay on, it takes to Tikal’s ruins). The hotel was a rustic wooden structure that had seen better days, although not quite in Daliesque condition just yet. Heavily armed men received us at the gate, guiding us to the parking area and helping us to unload our luggage. We spent the evening by the river’s shore, dinning at the hotel’s restaurant, enjoying some Guatemalan dishes (largest tortillas I’ve ever seen).

The San Felipe Fortress, built in 1644.

Next morning, a two hour boat ride was to take us up the river to Livingston. The boats, being the main means of transport in the area, work both as tourist service and basic transport for locals. As we parted, first, a tourist attraction; as the vessel made a sightseeing detour around the Fortress of San Felipe, a 17th century Spanish structure built to keep those pesky Brits at bay (literally!) The mortar structure is small; but an interesting legacy from Spanish times, a remainder of their tenuous hold in the region.

That done, the boat took stops in various expensive jungle hotels scattered all throughout Rio Dulce’s marshes. From each, European tourists boarded, from Germans, to French, to British. Afterwards the boat stopped at Rio Dulce’s main harbor, where locals boarded. In the end we were quite the multicultural lot; as Europeans, Latinos and Maya Indians comprised the passenger list.

Water lillies on Rio Dulce.

The boat sped up as it travelled with ease over the serene waters of the river. The air was cool, and water mist kept getting into our skin, cooling us a bit too much in what was already a chilly morning. Besides our trinkets and garments, little modernity was around us. Instead, we were surrounded by greenery and wildlife. Birds parted as the boat roared, advancing decidedly towards Livingston’s bay. Every once in a while the boat would slow down, reach a group of humble houses on stilts, and a passenger would disembark, as they had reached home. Generally these locals carried lots of shopping in large backpacks (Better have a comprehensive shopping list. It would suck to go back to town just for some toothpaste).

As the boat approached Livingston, small waves made the travelling bumpier and vegetation became even thicker. Monkeys could be heard on the trees, appearing occasionally. It was the closest I had ever felt to being Indiana Jones, even if I have little resemblance to Mr. Ford. This unbridled nature was the reason to repeat this trip. It was worth the effort to relive the experience.

Stilt houses along the river. Make sure not to miss anything on that shopping list!

Talking about value; while I have sounded like a VW Golf sales pitch up to this point, from an American point of view (I saw these cars when new back in California), VW’s vehicles were just poor value. While being decent vehicles, they didn’t offer more than competing Japanese rivals; indeed VWs offered less while costing more. Quality wasn’t up to Japan’s level either. Only those on a ‘motoring cult’ could be interested, and VW advertising sold it as such in the US: Drivers Wanted. An unintended Freudian slip? Regardless of non-subliminal messaging, drivers didn’t show up. Not for a while that is. Good thing for VW that China happened.

Around the world the 3rd gen Golf sold over 4 million units. In Europe, endless editions appeared. Is there a current Polo Rihanna?

Granted, the brand survived not only because of China. Production improvements occurred all throughout the 90’s, with some Machiavellian intrigues playing in the background. Ferdinand Piech ascended as company’s CEO. VW entered its imperial phase, with Piech -more or less- declaring: “I see GM… and we’ll take over that land and be bigger!” (NOT an actual quote). Pundits laughed at the notion. Production expertise was supposedly siphoned from GM by the hiring of José Ignacio Lopez de Arriourta, GM’s head of purchasing in Europe. As it is its wont, GM cried foul, entering into a lengthy legal trial with VW (litigation seems a VW proclivity).

Eventually, Piech’s foundations paid off; with VW vying with Toyota for the mantle of world’s largest automaker year in and year out. Meanwhile, VW’s greenness goals became just pretense.

Livingston’s beaches.

Livingston is a tiny, sedate, delightful coastal town; easygoing, colorful and generally safe. In typical Guatemalan fashion, as we unloaded from the boat, locals approached to peddle some service or good; be it seashell collars, boat rides or braids. My wife got hounded the most, as every braid hairdresser in town kept after her it until she relented. 45 minutes later, she had her own hair arranged in exotic looking braids. Hairdo done, we were ready for sightseeing and selfies.

Everything in town is reachable by walking distance. And it better be, as cars are basically nonexistent. Small wooden colorful houses surround the harbor area, with small shops filled with local handcrafts. Street vendors provide Garifuna foods; from coconut oil, to alcoholic mixes with purported medical qualities. Eating seafood is a must, as local dishes vary from seashell soups to fried seafood of all types.

Pastel colors are rather common in Livingston.

From Livingston, a number of boats and ferries leave steadily, ready to take visitors around the area’s natural beauties. From nearby beaches to places as far away as Belize’s Punta Gorda can be reached. On our second day we took a boat ride to Playa Blanca, a scant 30 min. away from Livingston. It was a rather bumpy ride, with the Atlantic’s modest waves hitting the boat’s bottom periodically. Once at Playa Blanca, a half day of beach wandering was allowed (there’s no overnight stay).

Caribbean beaches are always a sight to behold, and Playa Blanca’s clear calm waters (when no hurricane is around!) were great to splash pointlessly around for a few hours. One note, facilities in these distant beaches are nothing but rustic. No restrooms (as we understand them), no fancy restaurants; just sand, water, and hummocks. There isn’t much to do, which is precisely the point. On a plus side, dirt and garbage were rare. By 3pm or so, we were told our time was up and took back to Livingston. Waves had picked up some as storm clouds approached on the horizon. Our bottoms were reasonably sore by the time we reached Livingston’s harbor.

Once again through Rio Dulce.

We spent the last night in Livingston at the hotel’s beach. From the shore, the stars shone brightly above us in the clear night sky. In the dark of the bay, a solitary boat could be heard every once in a while in the distance. After a couple of days of beach travelling it was time to head back home. We were done with our brief intrusion into nature.

Back to my VW PR speech. I won’t deny it, the Golf has served me well in the 13 years I’ve owned it. It’s been a fairly entertaining daily drive. This came more evident to me as I recently drove a 2012 Accent to Honduras (a future CC post?), and remembered why I enjoyed the Golf. On return, I spent the next couple of days speeding away on the Golf for no particular reason, with my wife wondering what was happening with me. “Honey, I CAN feel this car!” She laughed at my reply, somewhat nervously.

That said, my possession of the Golf is getting long in the tooth, and these past couple of years I’ve been thinking of replacing it. Can’t quite figure out what with, though. Maybe one of those dieselgate VW specials. Is it too late for me to join on the lawsuit fun?

Back in town.

For more on VW’s Golf and other VW woes:

The Winners and Losers of Dieselgate – by PN

1975 Golf, the Most Influential Modern Global Compact Car