We recently had a chance to drive the Volkswagen Golf Blue-E-Motion in plain sight around Volkswagen's hometown of Wolfsburg, and we can report that it is quite likely the most refined and best driving of affordable electric cars. Nonetheless, we're unimpressed, even disappointed.
To explain this seeming paradox, let's start with a fifty-second backgrounder on the state of the electric-car race: As you may have heard, Nissan and General Motors are ramping up production on (relatively) affordable and (relatively) practical electric vehicles. Suddenly, every automaker that isn't mass-producing an electric vehicle is behind the technology curve -- or at least is perceived as such. That includes the mighty Volkswagen Group. Sure, it builds the fastest production car on the planet and has previewed a few very appealing green sports car concepts in the Porsche 918 Spyder and the Audi E-tron. But can it and will it produce a rival to the Nissan Leaf?
If we're going purely by our driving experience, the answer would be an unqualified yes. The four-door Golf Blue-E-Motion takes the Chevy Volt's tagline, "more car than electric," and makes it reality. From the outside, the conversion to electric propulsion is invisible. The 114-kilowatt electric motor fits neatly in the engine bay, and the only hint of the thirty air-cooled lithium-ion battery modules residing under the center console, rear seats, and rear floor is a slight reduction in cargo capacity. Inside, one finds the familiar Golf switchgear subtly adapted to electric driving. The LCD touch screen that's standard in the GTI has been programmed to display battery range and other vital stats. The exterior likewise presents no overt green cues, although it does borrow a few high-end pieces from the GTI and the Golf R, including LED taillights. VW promises that the production car will be recognizable from "twenty meters" away as an EV but at the same time makes clear its aims to produce a refined compact car first, and an electric car second.
"Customers are accustomed to a certain level of quality. They'll expect that with cars that have different propulsion systems," said Dr. Rudolf Krebs, head of electric drivetrain development at Volkswagen.
That logic also applies to the driving experience. We've long marveled at how the Golf is a singularly engaging compact, no matter if it's powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder, an in-line five-cylinder, or a small turbo-diesel. It turns out that's true even when there's no combustion engine at all. That means excellent steering, handling, and ride, despite a hefty curb weight of about 3400 pounds (about the same as a Leaf and some 400 pounds heavier than a Golf with a five-cylinder gasoline engine and automatic transmission). Weight balance has actually improved to about fifty-fifty thanks to the load of batteries hanging off the tail, but a few quick passes through a roundabout on factory grounds revealed a tendency toward understeer along the lines of what we've experienced in diesel-powered Golfs.
There are, of course, traits unique to an electric drivetrain, but here, too, execution is up to the elegant standards we've come to expect of Volkswagen. The brakes suffer from little of the sponginess we're familiar with from hybrids and EVs. Like the Volt and the Leaf, there are multiple modes for regenerative braking when the driver lifts off the accelerator pedal, but the Golf offers more adjustability. Using a steering-wheel-mounted shift paddle cleverly co-opted from DSG-equipped Golfs, a driver can select one of three drive modes. The first, best suited for highway driving, has very little regen braking. The second and third modes introduce the liftoff braking we've become used to in hybrids and electric cars in increasing increments, but we'd like more aggressive braking in the highest mode. In all modes, the Golf reduces friction losses by decoupling the motor from the one-speed transmission and "sailing" whenever you lift off the pedal. One disconcerting side effect of this feature is that the car will roll backward on an incline, as if it were equipped with a manual transmission.
Acceleration falls in line with that of every other electric car we've driven, providing an instant and nearly silent delivery of 199 lb-ft of torque off the line. The battery-life meter dipped more quickly than we expected, predicting a total range of only about 100 kilometers (60-ish miles) by the end, versus the promised 150 kilometers, but that reflects several short and aggressive journalist-helmed test drives in cold weather, the last factor being particularly important, since this car lacks the sort of liquid heating elements found in the Volt. Even with that caveat, if went on sale tomorrow at a price comparable to the Volt and the Leaf, it would instantly be our class favorite.
But therein lies the real problem. The electric Golf isn't going on sale tomorrow or any other day until 2014, when it will finally debut on the next-generation Golf platform. That renders the prototype we drove, which was apparently based on the current platform, a mere powertrain mule. To be perfectly frank, the ability for a car company to produce a few electric cars -- even very nice ones -- for journalists to drive just doesn't impress us like it used to.
Then there's a question of commitment. No doubt, VW has plenty of engineers fully devoted to developing an affordable electric vehicle, but is the company interested in marketing and selling it? Not really, according to Christian Klingler, VW Group's board member for sales and marketing.
"The electric car is not a request of the consumer but a request of the government," says Klingler.
He's welcome to his opinion. Time may even prove him correct, although we doubt it. But to trot out a very well-conceived electric prototype -- four years late -- and then douse cold water on its sales prospects demonstrates a troubling lack of focus from a company that has always been uniquely clear in stating and achieving goals. Again, this is the organization that decided it should revive Bugatti with the world's greatest supercar and then did so with little regard for cost or practicality. An electric car for the masses -- especially one as good as the prototype we drove -- deserves similar leadership and focus from Volkswagen, but so far we have not seen it.