With electrification no longer just a possible future outcome for the automotive industry but a very real and current strategy, brands everywhere are wheeling out near-future electric and plug-in hybrid concepts as a showcase of their dedication to future mobility.
Some brands are already past the concept stage and well and truly into the production phase, with European carmakers seemingly having the jump on their competitors. One of those is Volkswagen, with both a full EV and and a plug in version of the Golf ready to roll from German showrooms.
Not only that, but in order to sex things up a little, Volkswagen’s plug-in solution has been pitched as a member of the GTI family - sort of - with GTE badging suggesting that this green variant is also capable of a certain amount of driving fun.
While some enviro-friendly vehicles have a reputation for being ‘soft’, Volkswagen was keen to show off the capabilities of its green go-getter with a fast-paced cross-country sprint on its home turf, covering the 550km journey from Berlin to Frankfurt.
Vehicle Style: Performance hybrid small hatch
Price: $ 52,990 (estimated)
Engine/trans: 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 75kW/100Nm electric (150kW/350Nm combined)
Fuel Economy Claimed: 1.6-1.8 l/100km | Tested: 8.1 l/100km (including autobahn use)
2017 could be a watershed year for the automotive industry as countries like France and England have made moves to ban internal combustion engines at a set point in the future (2040 is looming as the deadline in most cases) and a range of automotive brands like Volvo and Jaguar having declared that in the very near term all future models will incorporate some kind of electric assistance.
Volkswagen is also on the way to diversifying its powertrains, with the latest Polo introducing a variant for the European market that runs on compressed natural gas, alongside a range of petrol and diesel engines, plus a variety of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles elsewhere in the Volkswagen family that’s set to expand at a rapid rate.
Of the vehicles that already exist, the fully electric e-Golf offers 300 kilometres of range on a single charge to give cars like the Nissan Leaf something to worry about, while the plug-in hybrid Golf GTE allows for zero tailpipe emissions in city driving and short-haul commutes while allowing long distance cruising, or more spirited driving, with the assistance of a petrol engine as the driver demands.
With Australia’s love of hot hatches and performance cars in general, not to mention the big distances covered by drivers that like to escape the bounds of the city on the weekend, plug-in hybrids become a top solution allowing for a workday commute to be potentially emissions free when charged from a renewable energy source, whilst not restricting weekend corner carving or good old fashioned coast-to-coast road trips.
In the case of the Golf GTE, the 550km trip between Berlin and Frankfurt simply couldn’t be completed in an EV at a similar price point. A Nissan Leaf, either the just-unveiled new model or the previous generation car, would need multiple stops and lengthy charge times to get the job done, while a Tesla Model S could hypothetically do the trip without stopping but that would require a P100D model, with the top speed limited to 100 km/h and at a cool $232,402 plus on-road costs in Australia - that’s a long way off the price Volkswagen expects the Golf GTE to land at.
A Golf is a Golf, and that means that even though there’s some advanced powertrain technology packed under the skin, the interior environment is as plush and user-friendly as any other member of the Golf family.
Like the GTI from which the GTE takes its performance cues, there’s also a decent amount of sporting flavour thanks to sports seats, a sports steering wheel, and a slightly different take on the iconic tartan upholstery with blue accents instead of the GTI’s red details.
Not only that, but the GTE retains the practicality of a regular hatchback. For our quick sprint up the autobahn the Golf GTE was loaded up with three adults, each with a week or more’s worth of luggage in tow and it swallowed the lot without compromising anyone’s comfort in the process.
Infotainment systems follow the lead set by the rest of the Golf Mark 7.5 range with a standard 8.0-inch screen size or an available 9.2-inch unit with gesture control. Not only that but the nav system is integrated with the vehicle as a whole, and uses a so-called advanced hybrid strategy to plot when and how to best utilise the capabilities of the drivetrain system to maximise efficiency.
Australian specifications are still under discussion, but TMR has been told to expect a level of equipment for the GTE that more closely aligns it with the plusher Golf R, to help offset its price premium when compared to the regular Golf GTI. That means features like a larger infotainment system, Active Info Display instrument cluster, or leather trim could potentially make it into the standard GTE package though nothing is confirmed just yet.
ON THE ROAD
From its combined petrol and electric motors the Golf GTE is capable of producing 150kW of power and 350Nm of torque, meaning the performance plug in hybrid is just 19kW off a traditional Golf GTI, but matches it for torque output. Factor in the additional weight penalty of the extra hybrid hardware and the Golf GTE can complete the 0-100km/h sprint in 7.6 seconds, compared to 6.4 for the GTI.
While its standing performance may not be as radical, the GTE still turns on a decent amount of pace, and rolling acceleration is strong - particularly in ‘GTE mode’ which offers an extra kick of performance by maximising energy sent to the wheels from both power sources.
The petrol-powered part of the system utilises the same 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder engine as the regular Golf line, with additional performance (or green e-mode running) contributed by a 75kW/100Nm electric motor. Drive is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed DSG (dual clutch) automatic.
To drive the Golf GTE is every bit as well mannered and comfortable as a regular Golf. During the urban trawl out of Berlin the GTE feels like any other Golf to drive, but without producing tailpipe emissions during the time it has battery charge available. Although the official EV range is a claimed 50 kilometres, real-world figures aren’t quite as generous.
Where the GTE starts to pull away from a regular electric vehicle is its cruising ability. Australian drivers simply wouldn’t have the chance to put that to the test safely and legally, but with the unlimited autobahn at our disposal the Golf GTE cruised happily for hours at speeds between 140km/h and 160km/h with no shortage of extra potential up its sleeve when required.
Even Volkswagen’s claimed 222km/h top speed was attainable (at least according to the speedo) with GTE mode playing a crucial part in whisking the hybrid hatch from around 180km/h to the 200km/h plus mark in short order.
Thanks to the direct and lightning quick gearshifts from the DSG auto the Golf GTE also does without the kind of spongy acceleration feel of traditional CVT-equipped hybrids, and feels more involving than the single-speed direct drive of an EV.
Unfortunately the opportunity to throw the Golf GTE through anything other than a sweeping freeway bend didn’t arise, but with a handling package that takes its cues from the GTI the GTE is sure to feel as secure and sure footed through a set of fast paced corners - although the extra weight won’t be without some impact.
Owing to the somewhat conservatively-sized battery pack, recharge times are fairly brisk with a regular wall plug requiring three hours and 45 minutes to replenish the battery, or a quicker two hours and 15 minutes if you install a dedicated wallbox charger.
That means that a quick plug in at home, or at the office, is all it would take to replenish the battery, and should you have no charge at all then petrol power will still keep the Golf GTE mobile.
On our intro drive, the Golf GTE displayed an 8.1 l/100km fuel consumption figure and suggested that only around 17 per cent of the trip was done in zero emissions mode, due to the nature of the route - mostly autobahn with a small urban section at each end and the fact the car wasn’t fully charged when we set off. There was no chance of reaching the claimed 1.6-1.8 l/100km fuel use figures, but keep in mind that cruising at high speeds uses more fuel than the 110 km/h maximum of most Aussie states, and that at no point was our ability to hit those speeds or cover that distance compromised by the GTE’s mechanical setup and this type of motoring becomes a clear step toward the future of emissions friendly mobility.
For many Aussie buyers, urban dwellers in particular, it means being able to get to or from work without touching a drop of juice, but also presents the opportunity to escape on a weekend drive to the country or week long rural getaway without suffering range anxiety or having to compromise on space, comfort, or driver enjoyment.
With an expected arrival in Australia late next year, buyers looking to combine a degree of greenness with a dollop of excitement at a reasonable price still have a wait ahead of them.
Full confirmation of price and specifications will occur closer to the new variant's arrival in the second half of 2018 but early indications suggest a price of just under $53,000 is on the cards, Volkswagen acknowledges that won’t make it a top seller, but sees the GTE as a halo model with the Golf range rather than a mainstream addition.
Importantly, Volkswagen is setting itself up as a more diverse company, shaking off the setbacks of its diesel emissions scandal and getting on with providing solutions to fit a scope of buyers, be that Europe’s all-electric e-Golf, the regular petrol models, performance lines including GTI and Golf R, or the flexibility of something like the Golf GTE.
While the idea of plug-in hybrid vehicles is still somewhat alien to Australian buyers, the range of models on offer from a variety of brands is set to expand at a rapid rate in the next five to ten years, meaning that rather than being seen as an unusual choice, PHEVs could soon be the default choice. And considering how well the Golf GTE worked in the kind of conditions discussed here, Australia seems like a natural fit for the technology.
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