The Boring Brilliance of VW's New Electric Golf

Courtesy Volkswagen

Volkswagen is finally bringing an all-electric car to the U.S. A plug-in version of its Golf will soon go head to head with Chevrolet’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf and BMW’s i3, among others.

It’s a notable–if unsurprising–step for an auto maker desperately trying to get the attention of U.S. drivers. Volkswagen’s sales in North America slid 11 percent in the first nine months of this year, a time when sales for the industry at-large were up by almost 6 percent.

Source: Bloomberg Data

The E-Golf, meanwhile, doesn’t make much of a statement. In fact, part of its charm is that the “e” features are decidedly low key. Perhaps what’s true of wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smart glasses is also true of electric cars: They will fully arrive only when they stop announcing themselves to the world and just resemble “normal” products. From this perspective, the electric Golf might be downright futuristic.

The car looks like a regular Golf and has all the German engineering Volkswagen likes to brag about: tidy fit and finish, tight gaps between body panels, and more room than one would expect. It even drives like a regular Golf, particularly between zero and 30 miles per hour, when it’s peppy. Ticking up to 65 mph on Manhattan’s West Side Highway took a bit of prodding, but the car showed no problem zipping out in front of an pushy taxi cab at a light change.

Courtesy Volkswagen

Bells and whistles are scarce. The control panel doesn’t fill up with animated leaves and butterflies when the driver pilots with particular efficiency. The center-stack screen isn’t usurped by a flow chart of the car’s vitals.

The Volkswagen’s take on e-monitoring is Teutonic in its simplicity. A single gauge—the analog kind—with a needle tilts into a green area when the brakes are recharging the battery and ticks the other way when one steps on the accelerator. A tad to the right, the Golf displays a digital number showing how many more miles the car will go before it goes to sleep, just like an overworked iPhone. And then there’s the speedometer: The Golf almost seems embarrassed that it doesn’t burn dead dinosaurs.

The car’s electric capabilities manifest themselves on the window sticker, which starts with a number around $35,500—roughly double the price of its cheapest gas-burning brethren. At the moment, that price gap would cover the cost of almost 6,000 gallons of gas. No wonder Volkswagen is selling the electric Golf only in states that offer California-sized tax credits.

Courtesy Volkswagen

Will Volkswagen sell a lot of these things? Probably not, if demand for similar cars is any measure. On one charge, the Golf will conk out after about 83 miles—about the same range as the BMW i3, and a far shorter distance that that reached by the more powerful Tesla.

But here’s the nifty thing: Volkswagen doesn’t need to sell a lot of plug-in Golfs. It makes them on the same assembly line that turns out traditional models. Workers just plop in a different engine and a big battery, which Volkswagen also packages itself.

The company can essentially make E-Golfs to order, instead of estimating demand and wondering if enough buyers will show up. So the electric car has become less a feat of engineering than a supply-chain wrinkle–an add-on little more involved than swapping in a heated steering wheel or a fancy dual-clutch transmission.

Volkswagen has made the electric car boring, and that’s no small accomplishment.