Volkswagen Golf GTE First Drive Review: Perfect on paper, but what about reality?

Lake Zürich was the bucolic backdrop against which ecomento.com became better acquainted with the Volkswagen Golf GTE. With even moderate speeding punishable with a criminal record in Switzerland, however, an emphasis was placed on examining the new car’s breadth of talent rather than its supposed GTI-baiting performance.

We’d previously had a fleeting encounter with a pre-production version of the plug-in hybrid at Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof Airport, which left us cautiously impressed and needing to know more about how the car’s hardware worked in a variety of scenarios.

On paper the GTE is a serious bit of kit; perhaps the best Golf ever made. In performance terms it’s within touching distance of the GTI, yet thanks to a greater electric range than most plug-in hybrids astronomical fuel economy is very much within reach during journeys of up to 100 miles.

It also looks razor-sharp in the metal. Volkswagen has taken the juiciest design cues from the battery-electric e-Golf and the iconic GTI hot-hatch. Factor in the model’s unique features – blue tartan upholstery is just one – and the final package becomes quite a proposition. Standard spec is also high, with LED lights, sport seats, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen included.

We won’t be able to deliver much in the way of real-world figures for a little while. However, the headline numbers are a pure electric range of 31 miles and overall autonomy of roughly 580 miles on a full charge and a brimmed tank of fuel.

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Total output when the electric motor (supplied by an 8.7 kWh lithium-ion battery pack) and gasoline engine work together is 204 hp – 16 hp short of the GTI – with is enough for a 0-60 mph time of 7.6 seconds and top speed is 138 mph. While those figures were good enough for ‘hot’ hatch classification not long ago the game has moved on. Still, they’re pretty warm.

How does it work?

As with all plug-in hybrids the Golf GTE is defined by its driving modes. There are five: E-mode, Hybrid Auto, Battery Hold, Battery Charge, and, best of all, GTE mode.

E-mode is the setting the GTE starts in, and on a full charge Volkswagen says 31 miles of carbon-free motoring are possible. Volkswagen anticipates that many owners will use E-mode during the week without ever engaging the engine. As such the 1.4-liter TSI has a polymer coating on the rod bearings and modifications to the piston rings to prepare it for long periods of dormancy.

E-mode can also be activated by pressing a button on the transmission tunnel, although looking down to do so brings with it the temptation of hitting a similar button marked ‘GTE’.

In GTE mode the steering becomes heavier, throttle response is sharpened, and – we’re told – the car’s paddle-operated six-speed dual-clutch transmission becomes sportier. With optional ‘dynamic chassis control’ the GTE’s dampers also firm up, but before all that you’ll notice the burly four-cylinder exhaust note that’s channeled into cabin. It’s unashamedly fake but sounds good nonetheless.

In GTE mode all 204 hp are available (you’ll get the same power by engaging kick-down in any mode), and the hatchback is at its most athletic.

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In between E-mode and GTE mode is hybrid mode, which expertly balances power from the electric motor and the engine to get you from A to B as efficiently as possible. As such the engine takes a breather frequently, leaving the electric motor to take the strain at lower speeds. At highway speeds the car’s decoupling function comes into its own, shutting down the engine off-throttle and saving plenty of fuel in the process.

Battery Hold and Battery Charge modes command the car to conserve electricity or replenish it with power from the engine, respectively. Both are useful if your final destination lies within a metropolitan area.

The official fuel economy for the Golf GTE is 188 mpg, which is attained under test conditions that use electric power two-thirds of the time. In every day driving that’s an unrealistic target, and are unscientific test showed the GTE’s engine (operating alone) returned roughly 35 mpg at steady highway cruising speeds.

GTI or e-Golf?

Volkswagen will tell you that the GTE offers the same thrills as the GTI with a small fraction of the fuel consumption. The latter claim is beyond question, yet we were doubtful that a car noticeably heavier than the iconic hot-hatch, and down on power moreover, could match the GTI’s verve.

That doubt was well placed. The GTE is fast, but as the numbers suggest it feels a good second-or-so slower to 60 mph than the GTI while softer damping gives it a plusher, less engaging ride.

The GTE’s brakes are also duller than those in the GTE, but they’re also much cleverer. Volkswagen has developed an electromechnical brake servo for its electrified cars, the result of which is that light loads won’t engage the hydraulic brake system, instead using torque from the electric motor to slow the car down and recover energy in the process.

This is one area where the company has prioritised efficiency over performance (that initial bite during braking is absent), and the level of regeneration is driver adjustable by switching the gear selector from “D” to “B”.

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In electric mode the GTE is unsurprisingly all but identical in feel to the e-Golf. Owners of both cars will experience the same swooping acceleration, despite the GTE’s marginally less powerful electric motor (105 hp plays 115 hp). At the top end the e-Golf just nudges it, too, with a top speed of 87 mph in comparison to the plug-in hybrid’s 81 mph in zero-emissions mode.

Even though the car can charge itself, by far the most efficient way of using to GTE is to replenish the battery each night at home. Charging from a standard 240-volt domestic outlet takes just under four hours, while Volkswagen’s optional 3.6 kW wallbox station will undertake the same task in around two hours.

Should I buy one?

Yes. Provided you can do without the GTI’s slightly deeper well of performance and you don’t mind slightly compromised cargo space in comparison to regular Golf models then it’s a compelling choice.

The insurmountable catch is that Volkswagen currently has no intentions to offer the Golf GTE in the US. Instead Audi’s mechanically identical A3 Sportback e-tron will carry the plug-in hybrid candle for North American buyers, which is no bad thing as the beefier hatchback also seems an excellent proposition.

Audi aside, real rivals for the Golf GTE are thin on the ground. A Chevrolet Volt offers greater electric range but nothing like the performance, style, or interior quality. Ford’s Fusion Energi is perhaps a little closer to mark, but those wanting a German hatchback are unlikely to suddenly find themselves buying an American sedan.

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That leaves the BMW i3 Range Extender (review), which closely matches the GTE in terms of performance and style and also offers electric-only driving with a gasoline safety net.

With a far greater overall range and an aptitude for highway cruising that the BMW can’t hope to match, however, anyone who covers longer distances on a regular basis would surely get greater satisfaction from the Golf GTE.