Volkswagen Golf GTE: First drive in a future-proof Golf GTI

Tartan seats. Yes, the plug-in hybrid version of Volkswagen’s Golf gets tartan seats, which should tell you everything about this half-electric half-gasoline family hatch.

That’s because the original Golf GTI – the venerated Mk1 from 1975 – had tartan seats, and they’ve featured inside the spiciest Golf variants ever since.

The Gaelic pattern is blue in the new Golf GTE, as opposed to the traditional red, white and grey, and is symbolic of how Volkswagen wants us to see this new and futuristic version of what is fundamentally a very ordinary car. The GTE might be electrified, but it’s still a Volkswagen Golf, and it’s still fast.

Our time with the pre-production Golf GTE was pitifully short – limited to only a couple of laps of the old Berlin Tempelhof airport – but it quickly became apparent that plug-in hybrid technology suits the Golf well. In many ways it’s a utility powertrain for the ultimate utility vehicle, and it guarantees that even when emissions regulations eliminate the Golf GTI as we know it, the iconic hot-hatch’s character will live on.

‘GTE’ – that sounds new

The name, which stands for ‘Grand Turismo Electricity’, is new, but the car itself is a mixture of innovative technology and components borrowed from other Golf models.

The engine, a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline unit, is powerful in its own right and generates 150hp. When mated to a compact electric motor neatly housed inside the gearbox it contributes to a promising total power output of 204hp. That isn’t far shy of the larger-engined GTI’s 220hp.

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Flooring it means electricity and fossil fuel combine to dispatch 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds – the Mk7 GTI takes 6.5 seconds by comparison. In all honesty we had expected the Golf GTE to feel a little faster off the line than it does, although initial response is prompt and precedes seamless acceleration. It’s probably fair to say that the 120kg lithium-ion battery pack blunts performance a little.

Where the GTE mirrors the GTI is the way in which it gives the driver confidence. Both cars are beautifully set up with seemingly endless front-end grip. While enthusiasts may find this a little conservative, even mundane, it means that everyone else can enjoy making the most of the GTE’s considerable power even on road poor quality road surfaces. Unsettling it will require commitment.

Like the pure electric e-Golf we also drove, the ride is on the firmer side of what you’d call supple, although with the GTE’s sporting mission in mind it felt extremely well judged.

Multiple personalities

Like all plug-in hybrids the Golf GTE has three different driving modes, and the way it slips into one from another is – and there’s no other way to describe it – sublime.

In pure electric mode the GTE would mirror the e-Golf precisely but for the fact that its 102hp electric motor is slightly less powerful. The 8.8kWh battery supplies enough power for an electric range of 31 miles, which is enough for most to commute to work with and bettered only by the Chevrolet Volt (which isn’t technically a plug-in hybrid). A full charge from a domestic wallbox takes fewer than three hours.

Hybrid mode is what most drivers will use and it balances power from the electric motor and engine as efficiently as possible, with potential fuel economy returns of more than 80mpg.

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The third and final mode serves no other purpose than to indulge the driver. Next to the ‘engine start’ button there’s a switch marked ‘GTE’. Pressing it noticeably sharpens the throttle response and livens up the exhaust note with help of some synthesized sounds pumped into the cabin.

Driver’s who buy this Golf for it’s ability to combine strong performance with excellent fuel economy will use the GTE button much of time, while those who splash out for its astonishing potential frugality and low running costs will hit the button an inch below it more often. This versatility is the charm of the GTE and it’s convincing in both setups.

The Golf GTE also features regenerative braking, which harvests energy usually lost as heat back into the battery. While the e-Golf has four different levels of regenerative braking – increasing in the strength – the GTE has but one. Again, most drivers will use this setting, particularly on urban routes.

Eco-friendly sex appeal

Like the e-Golf, the GTE is a tonic to more progressively styled cars like the BMW i3 and Nissan LEAF. It doesn’t quite have the aggression or the flair or the normal GTI – Volkswagen couldn’t possibly permit that – but it does look the business.

The standard Golf is a good canvas to which prominent bracket-shaped LED lights and blue highlights are adorned.  The 18-inch ‘Serron’ alloy wheels also look kerb-able in the way that only the most striking diamond-cutting wheels are, and they hide blue brake calipers. It’s a nice touch.

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The exterior styling is an exercise in premium brand box-ticking, then, but the entire package seems beautifully executed.

Volkswagen insisted that this Golf GTE was a pre-production vehicle, but there were no rattles or shakes, plenty of accurate information from slick LCD readouts, and an absence of jerky transitions as power shifted from the electric motor to the turbocharged engine. Put simply: this is the car paying customers will get.

Should I buy one?

Yes. What a car the Golf GTE will be when it reaches customers for the first time later this year. It won’t deliver hot-hatch pace and astonishing fuel economy at the same time, but it’s the ability to offer drivers the choice that makes it brilliant.

There is, however, a problem. Volkswagen has decided not to sell the Golf GTE in North America, chiefly because the new e-Golf will meet the brand’s average emissions targets unaided. US buyers will have to wait for the mechanically identical but more expensive Audi A3 e-tron, which arrives in 2015. It promises to be an outstanding plug-in hybrid, but it just isn’t as cool as the Golf.

For Europeans it’s a different story. The Golf GTE is much less expensive than the equally compelling Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid and isn’t far short when it comes to practicality. A Toyota Prius is roughly the same price, although we can’t think why you’d choose the older, technically inferior Japanese car.

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That leaves the Vauxhall Ampera (aka Chevrolet Volt), which is the next closest thing the GTE has to a real competitor. It’s an excellent car and a wonderful feat of engineering, but it’s also a little more expensive than the Golf and nowhere near as pleasant to drive.

It means the Volkswagen is currently in a class of two – the other half being the BMW i3. While the e-Golf we recently tested will make life hard for the BMW i3, the plug-in hybrid GTE version will do battle with the i3 Range Extender. Both are convincing but very different. The i3 triumphs electric range and the driving experience while the Volkswagen nails practicality and familiarity with a healthy dose of performance. It’s a decision only you – and your individual circumstances – can reach.

One thing that’s certain is that we can’t wait to spend more time with this car.

Posted by Richard Lane

Richard is a London-based automotive journalist specialising in future mobility and sustainable design. Having fallen for cars because of the virtues of a particular German flat-six, it's what we'll all be driving next that now interests Richard most. Dream garage: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior and a Detroit Electric SP:01.

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