First drive: VW Golf GTE

VW Golf GTE
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VW Golf GTE

Keen drivers with an eye to economy have been turning to sporty diesel-powered motors over the last few years. However, the health hazards of diesel emissions are increasingly being questioned. Time will tell whether the present breeze of health concerns over even the latest generation of Euro 6 diesels becomes a perfect storm or blows over, but in the meantime deciding what should power your next car can be tricky. For all but a few folk whose cars never venture too far from a charging point, electric-only is a non-starter, given that range anxiety is still alive & well – unless of course you can afford a Tesla. Traditional hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, only deliver their expected economy for a small number of people, specifically those who spend their lives in stop/start traffic.

So what is left? Well, the last year has seen a four-fold increase in the number of plug-in hybrids taking to the roads, and for most people these models offer an ideal compromise of being able to cover twenty or so miles on cheap – or even free – electric power before their petrol engine kicks in to avoid the dreaded range anxiety. Such a mileage is ample for most folks daily commute, and even if it isn’t, petrol power is still probably only needed for a fraction of their daily drive.

One of the recent newcomers to this growing plug-in hybrid market is the Volkswagen Golf GTE, and we recently were privileged to take a brief drive in one of the first of what are sure to soon be many of these cars on the road.

First impressions of the GTE from the outside is that it looks exactly the same as the highly impressive Golf GTI/GTD twins, with only the presence of discreet blue badging and highlighting rather than the red of the GTI giving the game away. Even the signature red stripe across the front of the GTI is replicated, albeit in blue. VW clearly are aiming this model to be considered in exactly the same sporty-but-refined hatch sector as their existing twins. To reinforce this image yet further, purposeful-looking twin chrome tailpipes are fitted, outwardly identical to those of the GTD.

the GTI's red detailing is replaced by blue - which looks equally stylish

the GTI’s red detailing is replaced by blue – which looks equally stylish

From the inside, the GTE is equally refined, using exactly the same high-quality materials as the twins, even down to the seat cloth, which remains tartan like the twins. As with the outside, the red detailing of the GTI’s seat fabric, steering wheel stitching and the like, is replaced by blue. The only indication of anything different to the GTI/GTD comes on opening the tailgate, where the lower level of the boot is now occupied by the battery pack.

The dashboard looks identical to the GTI, and the GTE is started – or rather switched on – by the usual button, with the instrument needles then making their trademark full-sweep round the dial. So far, so GTI, except that for the lack of engine noise! As a hybrid, the GTE of course has an auto box, but here again it is all but indistinguishable from the impressive DSG unit offered on the GTI & GTD. The 1.4 litre petrol engine kicks in to assist the electric drive either when hard acceleration is needed, or when the battery pack needs recharging. However, so seamless is the blending of the drive between the two power sources that it is impossible to tell which is running without close scrutiny of the various displays.

Push the lever into drive, prod the throttle and the GTE gets off the line smartly, indeed 0-62mph acceleration, at 7.6 seconds, is not far short of the GTI’s 6.5 seconds. However, this tells only part of the story: with the massive torque of the electric drive available from standstill, the GTE almost feels quicker than the GTI. Certainly on the tricky hill route at Millbrook, with it’s tortuous gradients, the GTE’s performance was hugely impressive, storming up even the steepest hills and carrying speed round corners just like the GTI. The 120kg extra weight of the batteries does not appear to affect the handling in the slightest, indeed the rearward position of the batteries probably improves matters by giving the car closer to the ideal 50:50 weight distribution.

as well as the usual multimedia functions, the excellent central display can show a number of information screens such as this one, which indicates remaining electric-only range

as well as the usual multimedia functions, the excellent central display can show a number of information screens such as this one, which indicates remaining electric-only range

The giveaway when driving most hybrids is that brake energy recovery – which is how hybrids achieve their efficiency – is normally very noticeable, making the car slow markedly when lifting off the throttle and resulting in smooth progress being a little difficult. In contrast, the braking effect on lifting the throttle on the GTE is barely perceptible, yet energy recovery is clearly taking place as a quick glance at the power meter front of the driver will confirm. VW’s engineers must have worked incredibly hard to achieve this seamless brake blending between the electric braking of the driveline and the conventional footbrake-controlled disc brakes.

And that is exactly as it should be: for plug-in hybrids to gain widespread acceptance they need to be absolutely straightforward to drive, a trick the GTE performs with distinction. This is the first hybrid I have driven which behaves exactly like a conventional petrol or diesel, and VW should be congratulated on their success in achieving this level of refinement.

In pure electric mode, VW claim a range of up to 31 miles with a fully charged battery pack, real-world experience with other plug-ins suggests this is likely to be closer to 20 miles – still enough for most commuting needs.

a discreet charging point is hidden behind the VW badge on the grille.

a discreet charging point is hidden behind the VW badge on the grille.

Talking of plugging-in, when that is necessary, the batteries charge in only 3 ¾ hours from a domestic 3 pin supply, or even less with a dedicated wall socket as offered by a number of electricity authorities at subsidised prices. On-street charging can of course also be carried out. The GTE also has what VW describe as an e-manager, which allows the driver to pre-set vehicle charging, as well as interior cooling or heating. These functions can be operated remotely using the Car-Net app on a smartphone.

The icing on the cake is the price: inclusive of the present £5000 grant for plug-in cars the GTE comes in at almost £1000 cheaper than the equivalent spec GTI, and of course for business users Benefit in Kind rates are significantly lower at only 5% rather than the 24/22% of the automatic GTI/GTD models. Beware though – the £5k Government Grant in theory runs out in 2015, although it may well be extended in some form.

I’m a huge fan of the present Golf GTI, having run one of the first Mk VII’s for the last year, and the GTE offers exactly the same blend of performance, comfort and sheer quality, with an added bonus of even better economy. The GTI/GTD twins have now clearly become triplets!

Interested? Find out more on the Volkswagen website at: http://www.volkswagen.co.uk/new/golf-gte-vii/home

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