First Drive: Volkswagen Electric Golf Has Innovative Features

By · November 11, 2010

By now many PluginCars.com readers know that VW has set its sights on delivering an electric Golf to the market. Previously the company had announced a 2013 launch date, but that date has now slipped to 2014. Even so, the car still seems to be on track, and during the U.S. Media Launch for the E-Golf (officially called the Golf blue-e-motion) I was given an opportunity to take a prototype of the car on a short drive around the streets of Wolfsburg, Germany.

e-Golf
e-Golf

Although I didn't have a chance to really put the car through its paces, and it's unfair to set expectations based on a prototype, the E-Golf certainly had no glaring errors to report. It was a solid and well-balanced performer and maintained the high quality fit and finish of a conventional Golf.

Due to the electric motor, low speed acceleration and torque are better than the combustion-engined Golf, so executing quick passing maneuvers in the city was a relatively easy task. Having driven other prototype electric cars, I can say that the E-Golf is a great start with excellent potential. However, when compared to the fully refined plug-in offerings hitting the market at the end of 2010—the Nissan LEAF and the Chevy Volt—there is no contest as to which are the better cars. As I said, it's not fair to compare a prototype to production cars.

Advanced Regenerative Braking

Even though the E-Golf is a prototype, it does have one feature that really sets it apart from other plug-in offerings: highly adjustable and on-the-fly user-selectable regenerative braking.

(Regen braking, as it's known, is what electric cars do to regenerate electricity from what would normally be wasted as heat during braking. By connecting the motor to the wheels while the car is slowing down and using that resistance as a brake, the motor becomes a generator and runs juice back into the battery pack.)

e-Golf
e-Golf

This high degree of user-selectability is a feature I've been promoting to erstwhile EV manufacturers for years now. Most of them only offer two settings for regen braking: on or off. In the Nissan LEAF you can either drive in "Normal" or "ECO" mode—I'll let you guess which one provides the most regenerative braking. In the Mitsubishi i-MiEV you have a choice of "Economy" or "Performance" mode—different words, same difference. In the Chevy Volt you essentially have three driving modes, but only two regenerative braking levels.

While this is nice for people who don't want to have too many complications to think about, it's not providing the "power drivers"—the folks who really want to maximize their range—with enough options.

Since regen braking is entirely controlled by software, it is a rather minor task to provide more control over how much regen braking the car does at any given point in time. Volkswagen has realized this and in the E-Golf has implemented a high degree of customization by providing four levels of regen braking called D, D1, D2, and D3—with D3 being the highest amount (most energy regenerated). These levels are selectable on the fly via paddles on the steering wheel so that a driver can choose what level best suits their driving needs.

Although it's a prototype and the interface felt a little clunky and would need a lot more explanation to be useful to the average driver, the inclusion of this feature is genius and other plug-in manufacturers would be wise to follow VW's lead.

Vital Stats

The E-Golf prototype was loaded with 26.5 kilowatt hours of lithium ion batteries. According to VW representatives, that is likely to increase along with improving battery technology when the Golf comes to market in four years. The prototype was loaded with 30 modules containing a total of 180 cylindrical laptop-type battery cells—although I was assured that these particular cells had been designed for a vehicle application. VW is currently in talks with suppliers and has not yet settled on a lithium-ion battery type for the production E-Golf.

e-Golf
e-Golf

The electric motor is rated at 85 kW peak power and 50 kW continuous, although different on-board settings will limit that based on driver preference for either increased range or better performance. When in performance mode, the motor can deliver a consistent 200 ft-lbs of torque from a standing start to its top speed of 84 mph—which allows for the quick passing maneuvers. Even so, the E-Golf takes a rather lengthy 11.8 seconds to reach 62 mph—by comparison, the Nissan LEAF can accomplish the same task in roughly 8 seconds.

Overall Impressions

It's hard to say exactly how I feel about the E-Golf. Number one, it's a prototype, and since we're about to witness the launch of two actual consumer, mass-production vehicles on the market this year, it doesn't feel quite right reviewing a prototype in that company.

The E-Golf felt almost exactly like a Golf except that it was much quieter (am I starting to sound like a broken record on this standard feature of EVs yet?) and in that sense VW has accomplished their mission of making an EV that's instantly recognizable and will feel completely normal—but that's part of the problem.

It's certainly a solid effort and it has the one regen braking feature that really sets it apart from other plug-ins to this point, but when 2014 rolls around the market will be starting to get crowded with other EV offerings and the LEAF and the Volt will be closing in on their 3rd generations. If a major automaker had slapped a battery and electric motor in one of its production cars four years ago, everybody would have taken notice. At this point I'm having trouble finding a compelling reason to buy the Golf versus other competitors. Things change and perhaps as the E-Golf program evolves VW will deliver that compelling reason, but if not, I see reaching even modest sales targets very difficult for the company.

Disclosure: the author's trip was provided by Volkswagen

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