By Rory Buckeridge Last updated
The Golf GTE is Volkswagen's first –ha-ha! – charge into hybrid driving, a short 18 years after Toyota's Prius first apologised onto our streets. They're late to the party, certainly, but with a compelling sell.
The GTE pairs an 8.8kWh lithium-ion battery powering a 102PS electric motor (bolted cleverly inside the gearbox housing) with a 1.4-litre, 150PS TSI direct-injection petrol engine. Together this somehow adds up to a combined power of 204PS – hmmm – and a theoretical range of 580 miles.
Giving a relatively titchy range of 31miles, the battery is charged via a nubbin under the front badge and should take around 3.75 hours from a domestic mains outlet, or 2.25 hours from a bespoke wall box. And here's the big ticket number: 166. Volkswagen claims a combined cycle figure of 166mpg, while CO2 emissions should be zero in all-electric mode and 39g/km all round, so it's expected to be exempt from VED and the Congestion Charge.
VW is desperate to position this in the same bracket as its GTi hot hatch. Hence the G and T up front. Indeed, they're so serious about its GTi credentials they've even tailored the seat cloth with the brand's iconic tartan bum-fondlers. Only in blue. Because blue's “electric”, right?
Your phone, music, satnav and car management is orchestrated by a delightful, new touchscreen infotainment centre. Packing a bright 12-inch screen, it's more responsive than Ford's effort and a proximity sensor detects your finger's approach. So is the satnav, which is all map, for instance, throws up a line of menus on the bottom at the advance of your hand. The phone menu has six, programmable favourites to make dialling easier and in general, the whole thing's well thought out and brain pleasing. The voice recognition is rubbish, as you'd expect.
The dash then, isn't as crowd pleasing as a Tesla or Audi, but you can choose what you see in between the dials, selecting satnav directions, audio choice (radio station or track), battery level with power use infographic or sensor situation. So it's a bit Ronseal, but this is a car, not a tablet.
The Drive: Part 1
Being nerds, the first thing we did after heaving ourselves inside was attempt to attach our smartphone – you don't want to be doing this when you're driving. So pop up a panel low down behind the gear lever and you'll find, eventually, recessed right at the back of this compartment a USB in. Good luck with this. It's just out of finger reach and the gear lever stops you from getting a decent run at it. So after some huffing and puffing we teased the end of the USB in with the tips of our long, “writer” nails. After that, syncing music and phone is a couple of stabs of the excellent infotainment system.
Then we smacked the next hurdle like a short steeplechaser – starting the thing up. The GTE, it transpires starts in full electric mode so we thumbed the Start/Stop button and… “nothing”. Tried again. Nothing. Tried again. Did a swear, felt foolish. A sheepish plea for help to the polo-shirted VW man's man informed us that the car had indeed started, but as it fires up in full leccy, we had no idea we could proceed. (It turns out, a tiny, green “Ready” light pops up on the dash, but we totally missed that.) It's a mistake you'll only make the first time, but a demerit, nonetheless.
The Drive: Part 2
In reality, the GTE is less hybrid, more a five-in-one. Prodding the “E-button” selects one of five operating modes: E-mode, GTE, Battery Hold, Battery charge and Hybrid Auto. A tap of the GTE button – the fun button that puts both engines into play – and off we went.
And the GTE really is a pretty terrific drive. Based on the proven GTi chassis, it's a tried and tested winner, equally at home sucking up the potholes of A-roads and motorways as flexing sturdily and amusingly into windy B-roads.
The steering's responsive and quick and it holds corners like a setsquare. But is it a GTi? Well, yes. At 7.6 seconds, the 0-62mph dash is just 0.3 seconds slower than the GTi and 0.1 seconds tardier than the GTD. Make no mistake, this is a fast car. We're not sure if it's the extra weight of the electric engine though, but (just a couple of times) it gets a bit jittery under hard braking.
How's the battery?
In fact, the only fly in this otherwise delicious ointment is that battery. After an hour or so of driving the GTE hard, the electric motor usage noticeably starts leaking battery juice at a rate of knots. Before it was lost entirely, we had a go on full electric and it's noticeably slower, with all the grunt on the low end like any all-torque immediately electric car, but still entirely useable.
The a top, all-electric speed is 81mph but you'll rarely use this, clearly, as with that 31-mile range it's for running about to and from work/the shops/gym, possibly, not motorway stretches. In electric mode an “E-power” bar on the dash helpfully tells you how much juice you're burning, up to an “E-max”. Then, when the Duracells dribble out, the car puts itself in “battery hold” mode and fires up the petrol.
The battery, then, is more “Apple Watch” than “Tesla Model S”. Sticking the car in battery charge mode has the engine drive a dynamo to recharge it, with 15 minutes sturdy driving charging the battery back to almost 50%. The Golf's noticeably less “right foot-y” in the absence of the extra motor, but we guess that's your fault for driving like you've got a preggers in the back.
This really is the best of all worlds: an electric runabout that'll whizz you silently and cheaply to work – if you work reasonably nearby –while also an immensely fun hot hatch a spit off GTi performance when you marry the two engines. Wrapped in VW comfort, design skills and build quality. If the complicated engineering combination boasts VW's legendary reliability, this is an enormously compelling vehicle.
Plus, with a £5k government electric vehicle rebate it's £4,435 cheaper than a GTi. We know which one we'd rather have.