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Volkswagen is primed at last to enter Australia’s fledgling electrified car arena, with the Golf GTE plug-in hybrid to be first cab off the proverbial rank pending a market launch in 2017.
After years of recalcitrance prompted by the lack of charging infrastructure and government subsidies for electric cars, it appears Volkswagen Australia has had a change of heart. Whatever the reason, now is a good time to re-establish its green credentials.
Like its Audi A3 e-tron sibling, the current-generation Golf GTE is a petrol-electric (PHEV) vehicle that combines a main petrol engine with a small electric motor and battery pack in reserve, allowing about 50 kilometres of electric driving with the surety of a less limited overall range.
In a country of vast distances such as ours, being able to simply top up the fuel tank and run off the engine if you don’t have a charger handy makes sense, and the pure EV range covers the average commuter’s daily drive to and from work with ease. Volkswagen itself admits it's not a viable end point, but as a piece of bridging technology, a PHEV just fits.
We had a chance last week to drive the current-generation Golf GTE in Germany ahead of our coverage of the Paris motor show over the border. Naturally, the soon-to-be-revealed ‘Golf Mk 7.5’ update will probably yield a more advanced PHEV setup and superior cabin infotainment, but here’s what Europe has in the present. It gives us a fair idea of what to expect.
Under the MK7 Golf GTE’s body as tested is the familiar modular MQB architecture. Up front is a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine making 110kW/250Nm, sending torque to the front wheels through a six-speed DSG transmission.
Paired to this is a 75kW/330Nm electric motor, backed by a series of lithium-ion batteries stored beneath the rear cargo floor, meaning interior packaging is identical to the regular Golf hatch (including the flipping back seats).
The only difference is the lack of even a temporary spare wheel under the rear floor, which is replaced by a patch kit. Behind the Volkswagen badge in the front grille is a charging point that allows the car to be plugged into a powerpoint or higher-amp fast-charger.
Volkswagen says the Golf GTE can do around 50km of pure EV driving, active below 130km/h. Waste energy is captured by the regenerative engine braking system, and the fuel tank allows a petrol range of about 600km between servo visits. The Euro-cycle combined fuel consumption figure is 1.5L/100km, which is 0.4L/100km better than the bigger Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.
So far, so conventional. We’ve seen similar setups in the $62,490 A3 e-tron and $71,900 BMW 330e. What’s different here will be price. Expect the GTE to kick off below $50,000, roughly matching the base Golf R. It might even match the Golf GTI in the mid-$40k range if VW Australia shows some leadership.
That kind of aggressive positioning would send a message to the market — which is precisely the point of a PHEV at the moment, after all. Matching the larger Outlander PHEV’s price (due to be updated next year) must surely be a minimum.
So how does the Golf GTE go? Impressively. Our cohort managed more than 40km of silent and emissions-free electric range at 130km/h. I drove from Zurich to Munich (about 350km), hit a 215km/h top speed on the Autobahn, and arrived with more than a quarter of a tank of petrol left.
There are various modes to play with. You can run in pure EV mode, a combined mode called hybrid where the car’s brain chooses the best balance between engine and motor, and a mode that gets the engine to more heavily recharge the batteries.
There’s also a B mode in the DSG, instead of the GTI’s S mode. This setting ramps up the waste recuperation from engine braking, giving you notable resistance when you lift off throttle. We added 10km of range to the batteries with about 20km of downhill-dominated driving.
Befitting the badge, there’s also a GTE setting that maximises the outputs of both systems, giving you peak output of 150kW/350Nm, sharpens up the DSG/throttle response, adds resistance to the steering and pumps a gravelly synthetic exhaust note into the cabin.
In this mode, you’ll do 0-100km/h in only 7.6 seconds, which compares to 6.5sec for the Golf GTI.
Naturally, despite the GTE bearing resemblance, this PHEV doesn’t handle like the Golf GTI. It weighs 270kg more, for one, and naturally has a spring rate and damper tune of its own. Its default setting has lighter steering as well.
However, in GTE mode, it still feels like a sprightly warm hatch. The ride is firm, the brakes are strong (though the regenerative system gives a slightly wooden pedal feel, albeit not bad as far as these things go) and the turn-in is acceptably sharp. Body control over undulations and mid-corner is more than acceptable.
The typical Golf GTI traits (excluding the GTI Performance with its advanced front diff), where the front tyres occasionally scrabble for grip under heavy throttle, and the DSG occasionally knocks around town, remain. But generally it's very pleasant.
The selling point is obvious. Drive to and from work in silent EV mode, at freeway and city speeds alike, and charge it in your garage overnight. On the weekend, you can drive as far as you please and just throw some fuel in.
The cabin is familiar to other Golf models, though the checkered seats have blue cloth rather than red, and the gauges have some analogue instruments that show battery use (expect the Golf Mk 7.5 to have a full Audi-style TFT Virtual Cockpit screen). Adjusting the drive modes is done by buttons next to the gear shifter. The cabin is exactly as you'd expect, meaning it's devoid of flare but high on class.
There's room in the back row for two adults, and cargo space is the same as the regular model.
That's a quick first drive of the Golf GTE, which gives us a good idea of what the MY17 update will offer. Volkswagen Australia is keen to bring this car here next year, so long as the business case adds up. Leave your feedback in the comments, because the company wants it.
Given the fact Volkswagen would do well to furnish its green credentials right now, we'd urge the company to make a bold call and price it sub-$50,000, coming close to matching the imminent Hyundai Ioniq and bringing to this burgeoning class a sporting and premium edge.
If you want to shout your green credentials to the skies, then this isn't the car for you. But if you want an urban EV with the potential to hammer the bends and take you far, far away, then this would be a most welcome offering.
Click the Photos tab to view full images by Mike Costello