First drive review: Volkswagen Golf GTE (2015)

Is 188mpg hybrid hot hatch the best of both worlds?

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THE VOLKSWAGEN marketing man summed up this new plug-in hybrid Golf GTE thusly: “For the man it is the fun of the driving, and for the woman it’s saving the world for the children.”

That’s perhaps not the most nuanced or progressive way to describe a car that promises a little GTI hot-hatch magic, zero-emissions city driving and the prospect of up to 188mpg. But the message behind the chauvinism is that fun and planet saving are part of the GTE’s brief.

To give this Golf hybrid the sort of performance that nods in the direction of its red-meat GTI cousin, Volkswagen has teamed a 148bhp 1.4-litre petrol turbo engine with a 101bhp electric motor, to produce a combined power output of 201bhp. That’s perfectly respectable and will rush you from 0-62mph in 7.6sec, and on to 138mph.

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Don’t be surprised if those figures sound slightly familiar. A short while ago we drove the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, which employs exactly the same powertrain (Audi is owned by VW) with exactly the same result, performance and economy wise. The Golf GTE has a slight aerodynamic and weight advantage, but there’s not much in it.

Golf GTE front

Looks-wise the Volkswagen has a bit more “attitude” than its A3 sibling, partly thanks to its quite gnarly 18in alloy wheels, which will be standard equipment in the UK. Otherwise, the GTE gains the C-shaped LED daytime running lights that are a feature of the pure-electric Golf-e. They give the GTE a really distinctive face. Also, as a feint to its hybrid/GT mission, there are blue accents where you’d find red on the full-fat GTI.

During the launch of the GTE in Zurich, Volkswagen went slightly over the top to convince us of the car’s schizoid personality. It ran a video that featured a rock anthem soundtrack when the GTE was on a full-beans, full-power sprint, and sweet, tinkling music when it was being all green and environmental. Just to make sure those at the back hadn’t missed the message, it announced that the GTE represents “the new kind of fast”.

I’m a big fan of the old kind of fast, so this felt like a bit of a challenge. As I climbed aboard, the fast-Golf cues were all there including massively bolstered and supportive seats, and aluminium cabin trim and pedals. The fascia is dominated by instruments that tell you when you’re making or losing electric power, and at what rate. There is also the smallest rev counter I’ve ever seen, waiting to spring into life when the engine joins the party.

Golf GTE interior

And then, an introduction to the wonderful and varied world of hybrid modes. When you tap the start button, the GTE’s default mode is pure EV (electric only), so if you have enough battery range, that’s how you move off. If, though, the red mist descends and you just have to get to 62mph in 7.6 seconds, mash the throttle and the GTE goes into automatic hybrid mode. Under full throttle, that means both petrol engine and electric motor have joined the fight. When you calm down, just poke the EV button and let the green mist wash over you instead.

The other modes of particular hybrid-ness are “battery hold”, which preserves a level of battery charge if you anticipate needing it, for example, for a city-centre journey (if you’re a Londoner, it may not be long before this is essential kit). And then there is the charging mode, which uses the petrol engine as a generator if you’ve depleted the battery (you should avoid this one as it plays hell with fuel consumption).

But the mode that seeks to justify the GTI-ness of the GTE is called, simply, “GTE”. Press the button so labelled and the steering weights up, the throttle response sharpens and the dampers (suspension) firm up. It’s effectively a sport button with all the adjustments made for you at once. And just so you don’t forget that this is a “new kind of fast”, a manufactured rorty engine note is fed into the cabin. It sounded a bit phoney.

In the city, the GTE is deeply impressive as a pure-electric car. Maximum range in EV mode is 31 miles, and at city speeds that is entirely achievable. The electric motor delivers all the torque (twisting force from the electric motor) you could wish for and best of all, the GTE resists firing up its engine, even when you’re pulling hard up a hill. And it will keep pulling on a motorway run in EV mode at speeds up to 81mph. Range at motorway speed? Well, a VW engineer told me that at a constant speed of just over 65mph, you’ll run out of battery after about 18 miles.

But when you do run out, that’s not the end of the line for EV progress, as the battery can recuperate energy through braking. There’s a “B” mode, too, which makes this energy regeneration more aggressive. It actually feels like you’re stepping on the brakes, so much so that if you lift off the throttle at high speed on a motorway, the brake lights will illuminate.

Golf GTE rear

Meanwhile, when you find yourself on a nice Alpine-esque stretch of B-road, punch the GTE button and let the rock-anthem loose. With all of the power sources dedicated to booting you quickly down the road, the GTE feels properly quick and, I found, surprisingly entertaining.

It shouldn’t feel better than the Audi but it does, cornering with a balanced, neutral slither when you’re really going hard and communicating clearly through the steering wheel. It’s actually fun to drive, which can’t be said for many plug-in hybrids (with the hilarious exceptions of the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918).

Throw in good ride quality and superb noise refinement and the GTE begins to feel less of a novelty and more of a sensible proposition; even after bouts of hard driving, we were returning miles per gallon in the high 60s.

Yes, its expensive but you’ll be free of the London congestion charge and Vehicle Excise Duty, and company car drivers will enjoy 5% Benefit in Kind. And for those worried about the battery wearing out, VW is confident enough in its technology that it will replace the battery if it falls below 80% capacity within eight years or 100,000 miles.

Verdict ★★★★☆

Really good as a pure EV, and fun to drive when you’re on the gas.

Volkswagen Golf GTE specifications

On sale: Available to order November; deliveries March 2015
Price: £28,000 (est)
Engine: turbocharged, petrol, 1395cc, four-cylinder, additional 101bhp synchronous electric motor
Power (total system output): 201bhp
Torque (total system output): 258lb ft
Transmission: six-speed dual clutch DSG
Fuel: 188mpg
CO2: 35g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph, 7.6secs
Top speed: 138mph

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Volkswagen Golf GTE rivals

BMW i3 Range Extender, £33,830
For One of the most futuristic looking and innovative EVs on the road
Against Space in the back a bit tight and you can’t open the rear-hinged back doors without opening the fronts first.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, £34,950
For Feels classier than the Golf, particularly in the cabin
Against Upfront cost quite a bit steeper than diesel equivalents


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