CHICAGO – It was more than two years ago that Volkswagen AG unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show the fifth-generation Golf hatchback, which went on sale in Europe a month later, in October 2003.

Here at the Chicago auto show, VW announces – at long last – the compact car will arrive in U.S. showrooms this summer in 2-door and 4-door body styles.

In this age of global architectures and synchronized launch sequences, how could VW’s most important and highest-volume vehicle reach U.S. shores so horribly late?

David Wicks, general sales manager of Volkswagen of America Inc., attributes the delay to the movement of production from Brazil to Germany.

VW built U.S. versions of its fourth-generation Golf in Brazil, and the new model instead will come from Wolfsburg, Germany.

VW says pricing for Golf will be competitive with segment, starting around $16,000.

“So there was the whole transition from one location to the other,” Wicks says. “And the engineering and emissions issues that we have to deal with here always take longer.”

Besides Wolfsburg, VW produces the Golf in Brussels, Belgium; Mosel (Saxony), Germany; and Uitenhage, South Africa.

Wicks says it is not unusual for vehicles to launch for the European market but not be ready for sale in the U.S. for several months.

“Traditionally, we are six months later, at least, and we have the additional engineering,” Wicks says of U.S. launches.

VW dealers in the U.S. have on average a four months’ supply of the current-generation Golf, Wicks says, allowing for an orderly rampdown of the old model as the new one arrives.

The fifth-generation Golf launched in 2003 with great expectations in Wolfsburg, anticipating annual sales of more than 600,000 units worldwide in 2004, the first full year of sales.

VW surpassed the target, producing 711,883 Golfs, up from 647,067 in 2003, according to company annual reports.

Still, those numbers represent significant drops from 2001, when VW produced 854,533 Golfs (including convertible models). VW says it builds 2,100 Golfs daily around the world.

The new Golf has stumbled in a fiercely competitive segment in Europe. Many Germans complained the “premium compact car” was overpriced when it launched, and a number of owners had reliability issues.

But Wicks insists the new Golf has not been a disappointment. “It remains the top-selling car in Germany,” he says.

U.S. pricing has not been set, but Wicks says the new Golf will be competitive with others in the segment, namely the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, priced at about $16,000.

Standard features on all U.S.-bound Golfs include antilock brakes, traction control, active headrests (for front-seat occupants), front and rear head curtain airbags, front side airbags and electro-mechanical steering.

The new Golf rides on its first fully independent suspension that uses a multi-link rear setup and optimized front axle.

The new base engine is a 2.5L 5-cyl. that generates 150 hp mated to a standard 5-speed manual transmission. A 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual shifting is optional. Also optional is anti-skid electronic stability control.

The auto maker says the new model posts double-digit gains in overall structural rigidity over the old Golf, partially due to the use of more high-strength body panels.

VW has sold nearly 24 million Golfs since the initial model bowed in 1974, making it the second best-selling car in history.

Also joining the VW lineup in the U.S. is the all-new GTI, a close sibling of the Golf. The GTI went on sale in January and is powered by the VW Group’s stellar new turbocharged 2.0T gasoline 4-cyl., which produces 200 hp.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com