While the internet goes gaga every time Tesla introduces a totally new car, less enthusiasm is generally afforded to annual updates on electric cars in the budget category.
I don’t need to explain why.
But the truth is, though the brands that make these cars do not have Elon Musk’s flair for launching near-perfect products in an explosion of pomp and adoration, they are regularly iterating. And their cars improve by leaps and bounds with each passing update. A lot of progress on electric car technology is being made—not least in exposing it to new audiences and testing what different buyers like and need.
Which brings me to the Volkswagen e-Golf. It’s not a car I’d typically review—those tend to be rather more aggressive and good-looking—but I wanted to check on a new offering from a very sensible category. VW isn’t reaching for the stars with this one, but is it meeting its own goals?
What It Should Do
Volkswagen says the 2017 e-Golf should add “all the benefits of an electric vehicle to the Golf’s "fun-to-drive, yet practical" formula, forever ending the idea that compact EVs must be bland and focused only on efficiency. In short: It should be just like the spunky $20,000 Golf but electric. (Pricing for the e-Golf has yet to be released.) With its improved performance the latest iteration of e-Golf, though it looks basically the same as it did last year, gets pretty close to that goal. I’d give it a solid B-plus.
Look, it’s not fabulous. The internal fabrics are thin, the brakes are alternately soft and abrupt, the body is boxy, and the acceleration feels as though the thing just woke up from a nap. But it’s a perfectly prudent car. It has a lot of room inside, it’s organized rationally, and everything in it has a purpose.
To many drivers, beautiful objects can feel frivolous—even too obviously good-looking to actually buy. To wit: My mother thinks Teslas are “pretty” cars, but she wouldn’t buy one even if she could afford it. Just as she selects her shoes and her jeans, she chooses to buy things that are comfortable and practical and whose aesthetics fit her frugal, Protestant nature. The e-Golf falls into that camp.
How to Measure It?
Usually when we talk about the performance of an electric car, the conversation centers around its electric performance: How long can the car go on one charge and under what driving conditions? How long does it take to charge it once you’ve drained the battery?
The e-Golf comes new this year with a revised battery that leads the increase in range from 83 miles to 125 miles on one charge. (This is under the most efficient “Eco+” drive mode.) Similarly, the power from the 2016 version has risen from 115 hp on an 85 kW motor to 134 hp on a 100 kw electric motor. Torque is up 15 pound-feet too, to 214 pound-feet. It is faster than last year’s e-Golf, with a 60 mph sprint speed of 9.6 seconds.
You can also charge it to 80-percent full in less than an hour under “DC Fast-Charging” mode (the apparatus costs extra) or reach a full charge on a 240-volt outlet in six hours. According to EPA estimates at 13¢ per kilowatt-hour, it’ll cost just $550 to fuel the e-Golf for a year.
These specs significantly improve on last year’s example, and all are reasons enough to buy the newest e-Golf. It doesn’t go as fast or as far as the Tesla, but it has better MPGe ratings and can drive longer after an hour of at-home charging. (Roughly 100 miles vs. Tesla Model S’s stated 52 sans supercharger.) The car makes good sense.
But Is It “Fun”?
How does the car compare with the conventional Golf when it comes to driving fun, as promised by VW? Decently, it turns out. But it doesn’t go the full 18 holes.
The conventional Golf has 170 hp but just 184 pound-feet of torque. That’s fewer than e-Golf. But the Golf can hit 60 mph a full two seconds faster than its electrified sibling. And with its engine noise and vibration, active transmission, and nonregenerative brakes, it feels more real to drive. Do you care about that when you’re using your car for hauling your kids and all their gear or strapping your skis to the top? Maybe not.
Still, to me, driving the e-Golf is like driving an iPhone. It’s fine, but it’s not tactile or engaged. Points are due the e-Golf for its many comforts: optional driver assistance, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking and pedestrian monitoring, lane assist, and blind-spot monitor with rear traffic alert. I bring these up to point out that if you buy the e-Golf, it’s not like you’re foregoing every creature comfort. Yes, the car can feel spare inside. But it’s not monastic.
Points also for the ability to access three different levels of regenerative braking, which means you don’t have to jolt.your.way.through.midtown if you don’t want to.
Ultimately though, VW misses its goal to make the e-Golf as fun to drive as the regular version. This is no contest.
Thank heavens VW didn’t do something weird to make the e-Golf look different from the boxy standard version and, more importantly, the performance-focused Golf STI. Consumers want to drive cool or attractive cars regardless of what’s under the hood.
This year VW has made the e-Golf sharper than its predecessor and fresher than cars similar to it in size and function, such as the Honda Civic and the current Jetta. The squared-off rear has LED taillights now, and the 16-inch aluminum-alloy rims are flushed so close inside the wheel arches that the car looks a little hunkered. There’s even a little flip edge at the top of the hatchback for extra verve.
The only thing that tips off onlookers that you’re driving the plug-in version of the Golf are its small badges and the absence of any tailpipes at the rear. That’s a good thing.
In the quiet, simple interior, special sound-absorbent materials to counter the lack of wind- and tire noise that a traditional combustion engine typically mutes. It’s not as quiet as a Rolls-Royce (we can’t hardly expect that, can we?) but it is quiet like a Sunday morning. Peaceful. An 8-inch touch screen and a 12-inch LCD panel behind the steering wheel are easy and effective to use. The back seat is flat but not uncomfortable. The trunk is empty and large, like a shipping crate. Easily used.
And that is the charm of this car. It is humble of mien and practical in nature. And if you buy it, the extended battery range, quicker charging, and spacious, useful interior will serve you reliably and well. That is beautiful in its own right.