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2016 Volkswagen e-Golf Test Drive Review
Volkswagen tries to unseat electric leader Nissan Leaf with a decontented and lower-priced base trim, a new infotainment system, and some additional safety for the e-Golf.
Range anxiety continues to fade as consumers begin to realize that 100 miles will serve them just fine for more than 90% of driving. With the Nissan Leaf upping its total estimated range to 107 miles, the e-Golf is suddenly behind the times just 2 years into production with an EPA-estimated range of 83 miles. But it has come back for 2016 with a lower-priced base trim that’s been decontented to make up for the more attractive price point, plus a new infotainment system offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Look and Feel
I love the look of the Mk. VII Golf. It’s the perfect blend of the 21st-century vision with the angled aesthetic of the original, which is a very German approach to car design. But today, nearly every Golf is made in Mexico rather than back in Deutschland. All of them, in fact, but one. That’s right, the e-Golf is the only Golf still assembled back in Germany, and it’s become my favorite Golf to drive. Here you’re getting all the build quality and impressive materials of the traditional Golf and GTI, but with extra weight from the lithium-ion batteries under the floor, the e-Golf exhibits road manners and stability that actually exceed those of its petrol-powered brethren. Highway joints are passed without drama, and corners are tackled with flat fervor. This is one of the few times I’ve found myself thinking a little extra weight has actually done a chassis good.
And this year Volkswagen has made dipping your toes into the electric pool even easier, as the base SE e-Golf gets a price drop to $28,995, not counting $10k in government rebates in states like NY and CA. Of course, the e-Golf is available only in coastal states right now—10 in all—so keep this in mind before you consider what a great deal that is. With the SE, you’ll get some attractive features despite being a “base” trim—things like keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone auto climate control, a rear-view camera, power-heated side mirrors, auto headlights, satellite and HD radio, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
From the outside, you’d never know the electric version was anything other than the regular Golf unless you noticed the shuttered grille, the LED running lights, and the unique 16-inch aero alloys with low-rolling-resistance tires. Moving up to the SEL doesn’t change that much, other than adding LED headlights, but you’ll also get an auto-dimming rear-view, front and rear parking sensors, and a navigation system and quick-charge port that were previously included at the SE level. The SEL also gets cruise control, fleather, a larger 8-inch touchscreen, and a heat pump that takes some of the load of the climate-control system and increases range. For all that, you’ll be paying an MSRP of $35,595.
I spent a week with an SE that came with no options included, although it could’ve been supplemented with the Quick Charge package for an additional $1,675. The SEL can add a Driver Assistance package for $395 that will bundle a frontal-collision warning system, automatic braking, and parking assist into what may be the best options deal I’ve ever seen. With an $820 destination charge, the walkaway price for my SE came to $29,815.
With a permanent-magnet AC motor and a 24.2-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, the e-Golf makes the seemingly unimpressive equivalent of 115 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque in its Normal driving mode. But those numbers are deceptive. Usually combining those power figures with a 3,500-pound curb weight would mean pretty lackluster performance, but with the instant power delivery of an electric motor, especially in the form of nearly 200 lb-ft of torque, it’s a wholly different equation. Here it means you’ll hit 60 mph in a little over 9 seconds, which puts it on the faster end of rival’s times, but that’s not the end of the story. The real performance benefit here with regard to speed can be felt on the highway. When it comes time to merge or pass, the power is immediately available, and that takes some getting used to. Once you do, it becomes addictive.
But what does this all mean for your range? Well, if you’re taking advantage of that power and having some fun, it’s not exactly great. Especially if you’re running the AC during the summer or trying to heat the interior during the winter, you’ll see your range drop down as low as 50 miles. However, you can choose the Eco or Eco+ driving modes, which cut power to 94 hp and 162 lb-ft or 74 hp and 129 lb-ft respectively, and you’ll even be able to beat the EPA-estimated 83 mile range. In fact, VW promotes the e-Golf as being able to attain 120 miles with the correct application of frugality. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible, especially when utilizing the four increasing levels of brake regeneration, with higher levels simulating engine braking for extra energy regen. The good news is, with a kickdown button under the pedal, even if you’re in Eco+ mode, putting the pedal to the floor will deliver full power whenever you need or want it.
For recharging, things are similarly complicated. The base 3.6-kwh charger will take 20 hours to recharge an empty battery on a standard 110-volt plug like you’d find throughout your house. Hook it up to a 240-volt/level-2 plug like the one that powers your oven or a washing machine, and that drops to 7 hours. Opt for the 7.2-kwh charger and a 240-volt plug can do the job in just 4 hours, and a DC3 station will deliver 80% charge to a dead battery in just 30 minutes, although it must be noted that these are the Combined Charging System chargers, which are currently largely restricted to the Northeast, the West Coast, and Texas.
Outside of long road trips, the e-Golf’s range was more than suitable for my week of driving, and even dealing with the standard 3.6-kwh charger and a 110-volt plug, I was easily able to keep the batteries charged.
Form and Function
Volkswagen produces my favorite interiors on the market currently, from both aesthetic and value positions. Beyond being clean, classic, and elegant, the materials and finish eclipse the price point by at least a level. You very simply feel like you’re in a car that must cost a lot more than what you paid, and that’s before applying the government rebates.
And with the impressive standard Golf chassis as the base for the e-Golf, you’re getting a car that was already a pleasure to drive, especially in a spirited manner. Now with the extra weight in the floor, way down low, the ride has improved on the highway while still remaining nimble and flat in the corners.
This is all because the Mk. VII Golf was designed with the e-Golf in mind—the same reason you don’t give up any storage space here. With 22.8 cubic feet in the trunk and 52.7 with the rear seats folded flat, you’re getting the largest storage capacity in the segment, and that’s the way you’ll get people to adopt electric—by making sure they aren’t sacrificing anything for the privilege.
Seats are comfortable with plenty of room front and back, and with proper driver’s ergonomics everything stands well within reach. My one complaint is with the gear shift—it just seems an unnecessary nod to the past that could be replaced with some buttons on the dash, freeing up a lot of space on the console.
While the tech has been largely pulled out of the SE trim with the nixing of the auto-dimming rear-view, navigation system, quick-charge port, and parking sensors, the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with the upgraded infotainment system nearly makes up for the decontenting. Plus, you’ll still be greeted with some interesting and welcome tech like keyless entry and ignition, auto headlights and LED running lights, satellite and HD radio, and dual-zone auto climate control. And an electrically heated windshield and heated front seats offer eco-friendly, efficient alternatives to traditional heat solutions, all to extend the range of the e-Golf.
Unfortunately things like the LED headlights and the heat pump for the climate control system are available only on the SEL, which is a shame, because people who decide to go with the more attractively priced SE will have the limited range of that trim as their first impression. Their omission doesn’t hurt the overall range to a large degree, but why not offer the best experience possible when you’re attempting to woo new drivers to a new style of driving? Additionally, the larger 8-inch touchscreen and SD card-based navigation system are available only on the SEL, but since Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included at both levels, it’s a hard sell. Given it’s a $6k increase to jump up to this level, I’m guess the SE will account for the bulk of sales.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have not yet tested the e-Golf specifically, but the NHTSA has awarded the entire Golf “family” a 5-star overall safety rating, with the 4-door Golf and Golf GTI variations earning Top Safety Pick nods as well.
For the e-Golf, you’ll be protected by front, side, and curtain airbags, traction and stability control, and 4-wheel antilock disc brakes. You’ll also get VW's Car-Net emergency telematics service for remote vehicle access and locating, automatic crash notification, and roadside assistance, as well as what VW calls geo-fencing, allowing owners to set limits for secondary drivers with regard to speed/distance/etc. And with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you’ll be able to manage much of this from your smartphone.
Unfortunately, for the full safety profile you’ll have to pony up for the SEL, which will get you the front and rear parking sensors as well as access to the optional Driver Assistance package for the frontal collision warning system with automatic braking and the parking assist.
Of special note is a 117-foot 60-0 mph braking distance, which is impressive not only considering the e-Golf's eco tires, which are filled to over 40 psi, but in that it’s beaten in the segment only by the much lighter BMW i3.
Not having to pay for gas says more than I ever could about the cost effectiveness of the e-Golf, but with up to $10k in government rebates on fully electric vehicles, it’s hard to argue that the e-Golf is anything other than a steal. The fact that the sub-$20k entry price puts it right in line with the Leaf and the Focus EV just means you’ve got a lot of good options in this burgeoning segment. Personally, the e-Golf is my runaway favorite of the three—it offers the best performance with regard to speed and handling, has the most attractive and useful interior by far, and nearly matches the class-leading Leaf with regard to range. My choice would be the SE with the optional Quick Charge package, but I’d love it if VW would offer the LED headlights and the heat pump as a standalone option. Sorry, but $6,000 is simply too big a bite to take in order to gain a small amount of efficiency.
VW currently offers the usual student and military bonus cash, but the real steal comes from 0% APR financing through 9/6/2016, so if you’re thinking about an e-Golf, the time is ripe for pulling that trigger.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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