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Volkswagen e-Golf is typically understated and classy in a world of original and unique looking electric vehicles

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Over time, you can loosely map the progress of affordable electric cars by the way they travel from Autocar’s offices to the test tracks we use.

All of the ‘ordinary’ EVs we’ve tested have reached the circuit that we use for photography, about 30 miles away, under their own power – even if some (Renault Twizy) have needed recharging when they get there.

The MQB platform the e-Golf is based on was designed with an electric powertrain in mind from the outset

But MIRA’s proving ground, in Leicestershire, is a different matter. The Mini E, Renault Zoe and early Nissan Leaf have needed stops en route or to be taken by trailer. A Tesla, however – RoadsterModel S or Model X – will do it in its stride. Any range-extended EV will call on fossil fuel reserves.

But the prospect of gliding into our test track car park with some miles showing on the ‘range remaining’ estimator, and without beads of sweat on our brows, is a tantalising prospect that is becoming more and more realistic by the month.

The current hope is this Volkswagen e-Golf, priced and sized to compete with the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3. It’s time to see how it fares, not just on the drive to the test track but also when it gets there and on all roads and sundry in between.

For 2017, Volkswagen facelifted the e-Golf which saw its range increase from 124 miles to 186 and overall power, as the German brand aims to conquer range anxiety, through the development of an enhanced battery pack.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen e-Golf rear

Volkswagen’s history is littered with low-emissions vehicles but, mostly, they’ve had combustion engines somewhere. The 1.0-litre concept from 2002, for example, and its follow-ups have culminated in the XL1 hybrid.

Look for electric concepts and you’ll find the Volkswagen e-up from 2009 (now in production too) and the NILS single-seat concept (a bit like a Renault Twizy but with proper doors). The e-Golf doesn’t have a direct predecessor, although some will consider the 2017 model the second generation, but lessons from all of these projects will have been applied.

As with other Golfs, the radar for the adaptive cruise, front assist and emergency braking is mounted beneath the numberplate

The fact that Volkswagen chose a Volkswagen Golf costume for its electric party piece ought not to surprise. Soft-pedalling proficiency as unobtrusiveness is the firm’s trademark, and the decision makers at Wolfsburg will have hardly needed reams of affirmative research to think their instinct for conservatism is correct.

While the BMW i3 and its highly conspicuous ilk occupy one end of the zero-emissions scale, the e-Golf sits at the other, managing to appear entirely unassuming while it vigorously pronounces to the masses, “Electric cars now okay!”, with all the implied reassurance of an astronaut ration pack made by Marks & Spencer.

Needless to say, the e-Golf occupies the same dimensions as the rest of the seventh-generation five-door models and, save for a slither of space hacked from the boot to help accommodate the underfloor lithium ion batteries, it offers the same highly commendable level of practicality, too.

Mostly that’s because the whole shooting match is underpinned by Volkswagen’s standardised MQB platform and its body is built from the same high-strength steel – although the drag around it has been reduced by about 10 percent, thanks largely to a rerouting of the airflow usually used for cooling.

The chief difference, then – aside from the weight gain associated with those batteries – is the EEM 85 synchronous electric motor mounted in the engine bay. Delivering 134bhp and up to 199lb ft of torque exclusively to the front wheels, the 12,000rpm Volkswagen-developed unit is mated to a single-speed gearbox, also designed in-house.

The firm’s mastery of the new tech has helped to permit its integration with the existing car’s construction methods; the e-Golf rolls down the same production line as its siblings. By the end, only redesigned LED headlights, unique alloy wheels, a new front bumper and a closed-off grille distinguish the car. That and its almost complete absence of noise, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

It’s certainly true, however, that the e-Golf gets less Volkswagen Golf-like the further you delve beneath the surface. In fact, get the tin opener as far as the vehicle floor and, apart from the basic layout of the MQB architecture, it has been comprehensively altered.

That’s because here, close to the spine of the vehicle under the front and rear seats, Volkswagen has mounted its 318kg lithium ion battery pack in a reinforced frame.

The manufacturer claims that it is an in-house development, but its expertise has some limits; the 264 cells that make up the battery’s 36 modules are sourced from electronic giant Panasonic. They serve up a nominal voltage of 323V — stored as DC and converted to the AC that the e-motor requires by a power electronics module.

Total energy capacity is rated at 24.2kWh (although the battery is prevented from fully discharging) and it takes 13 hours to recharge from a domestic 230V socket. Via a special, optional wall box, that can be reduced to about eight hours.

Better still, a 40kW Combined Charging System dispensing DC will have the e-Golf at 80 percent of full charge within 30 minutes.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen e-Golf interior

The comforting theme of familiarity continues inside and is arguably where VW’s policy ultimately pays off. Aside from an extra couple of notches on the gear selector and a slightly altered instrument cluster, there is nothing else to get used to in the driver’s seat, so much so that even the battery charge readout – normally an excuse for designers to get the disco lights out – is simply a converted conventional fuel gauge.

Similarly, the rev counter, which admittedly shows regenerative charge at one end, also displays the actual revolutions of the electric motor at the other. The inference couldn’t be clearer: yes, it’s electric, but really it’s business as usual. Carry on.

There's the usual Golf abundance of adjustments on the steering column and the pedals are perfectly located

Which means that in the quality of its finish, appearance, ergonomics, usability and practicality, like any Volkswagen Golf, it sets the bar for family hatchbacks. So it’s nigh on impossible not to feel at home in the driver’s seat, or comfortable in the back, or appreciative of almost everything that can be fingered or adjusted.

Added to which, it’s very well equipped – in addition to the standard SE spec - it gets two-zone climate control, all-round parking sensors, e-vehicle programmed sat-nav and an 9.2in touchscreen infotainment system with a 64GB hard drive and comes with gesture control – and it is now quite sensationally refined. The 63dB that we recorded at 70mph almost beats what the previous Volkswagen Golf we tested managed at 30mph.

The nav system is clear and easy to follow, and it will display your nearest charging options without too much prodding — vital in an EV. Detail on the available charging formats at those stations could be better, though. Equally, the system should make it easier to plot routes, including waypoints, to allow you to hop between fast chargers on a longer journey.

The car comes with a three-year subscription to an app called Car Net, available for iPhone and Android mobiles, which allows you to check and control charging status, climate control and driving data remotely.

Elsewhere, the multimedia system is impressive. A DAB tuner, smartphone integration, USB and Bluetooth connectivity are standard items across the Volkswagen Golf range, and the usability of both — along with the touchscreen — is on a par with the model’s overall intuitiveness.

Only boot space suffers a demerit. The elimination of its double-floor feature removes about 39 litres, but at 341 litres, it’s still slightly more capacious than a regular Ford Focus.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen e-Golf electric engine bay

The powertrain is quiet even by the extra-quiet standards of the modern EV. Most battery cars have a gentle, high-pitched turbine whistle-cum-whine, which is detectable mostly at low speeds before road roar and wind noise drown it out.

But the e-Golf’s motor and high-voltage power inverter barely register any noise at all. Flex the accelerator a long way and the crunch and chirp of rubber slipping momentarily against asphalt as the car takes off from standing is the only audible sign of expended effort.

The e-Golf's off-pedal momentum is often preferable to its energy recapture modes

But this is also a powertrain with a bit of low-end muscle, which gives the car not only the sense of classy refinement that you hope for from a VW but also competitive performance and a strong impression of flexibility. The e-Golf proved 0.4sec quicker to 60mph than the Leaf that we road tested three years ago and, more tellingly, 0.3sec faster to 30mph than a current 148bhp Volkswagen Golf diesel.

That neatly sums up how the car feels around town: very responsive and quite vigorous up to typical ring road speeds. An BMW i3 has it licked on darting-into-gap potential, but every other ultra-low-emissions option could be quite easily shrugged off everywhere except on the motorway, where the e-Golf’s single-speed gearing means that overtaking performance is less effortless.

Of more relevance is the sophisticated control of energy regeneration that the e-Golf’s powertrain gives you. A Nissan Leaf has a fixed, speed-dependent ‘regeneration’ regime that can make it hard to predict exactly how quickly it’s going to slow when you lift off the accelerator. An BMW i3 gives you either quite a lot, or even more, depending on your selected driving mode.

The e-Golf lets you choose between plenty of regeneration or none at all by shuffling the gear selector left and right, or slotting it backwards into ‘B’ mode. And the more familiar you get with doing that, the higher your displayed miles-per-kWh energy efficiency average rises.

Tailoring the energy regen settings like this adds a bit of involvement to the driving experience and also allowed it to beat the overall efficiency of the i3.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen e-Golf front quarter

Up to a point, the e-Golf handles better than the average economy hatch. It also rides more poorly than most of its petrol and diesel-powered range-mates. But the net impression is of a car with good dynamic deportment that offers the interested driver a bit more to get his teeth into than the average zero-emissions car.

The advantage gained from locating the car’s major masses under the cabin floor, rather than slinging them high up between the front suspension turrets, soon shows itself. Although outright grip levels aren’t high, the e-Golf rolls very little and steers with directness, precision and agility at low and medium speeds.

With 318kg worth of batteries the e-Golf weighs about 200kg more than a 2.0 TDI Golf

Hustling the car along isn’t something that you’d normally do for several reasons, but you can flick your way around roundabouts and tighter junctions with a bit of brio – and enjoy doing so. Underneath it all, this is a Volkswagen Golf, after all, and it handles with the same kind of perfectly metered consistency and well rounded predictability as any Volkswagen Golf.

There’s generally limited time for us to get familiar with how an electric car behaves on the limit at either of MIRA’s handling circuits, because battery range needs to be conserved so that the car can finish the full test on one charge.

Handily, there’s seldom much to be learned by driving these cars on track, either. But the e-Golf coped better than most EVs. It developed more outright grip than a BMW i3 and proved that battery-powered machines needn’t run on compromised, ultra-low-rolling-resistance rubber in order to achieve a usable range by setting a wet lap time of which any normal combustion-engined five-door could be proud.

On the dry track, the e-Golf is slow because of its lack of high-range performance, and not because it lacks decent adhesion levels, good chassis balance or proper body control. If anything, the e-Golf corners flatter and more keenly than its combustion-engined siblings and it would be tidier still with less pudgy-sidewalled tyres.

The e-Golf departs slightly from the carefully judged accomplishment of its siblings in the way that it rides over lumpy surfaces, though. There’s no mention of any drop in ride height in the press material, but you’d guess that’s how VW has achieved the e-Golf’s very low drag coefficient. The car seems to lack that crucial bit of wheel travel to keep its body from pitching and fidgeting noticeably over rougher bitumen.

Bigger bumps also disturb the car’s otherwise becalmed demeanour just a little bit more than they ought to. It’s not a big failing, but if the symptoms sound familiar, it may be because we’ve been writing the same thing about Volkswagen’s BlueMotion models for years.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen e-Golf

An electric car doesn’t come without its compromises, but nobody gets close to buying one without considering those. The most pressing one concerns range. At its most efficient, our test e-Golf was on schedule to do 150 miles before creeping to a halt. That doesn’t sound much, but it’s about 33 percent further than a battery-only BMW i3 will go and suitable for the 17 percent further than a Nissan Leaf

The e-Golf uses new European-standard Combined Charging System fast chargers, which are fewer in number around the UK at present than the Chademo equivalents Nissan Leaf, but the charge network will only get better.

The car could do with a switchable low-speed beeper to warn pedestrians of its presence

At the same time, charging costs remain low and EVs are exempt from the London congestion charge and vehicle excise duty. For now.

That’s probably just as well, because our residual value experts don’t predict great things of the e-Golf or its peers. Volkswagen Golfs are accustomed to retaining 40 percent of their value over four years, not 25 percent.

You might also be surprised to find that, for a car with such a honed spec, there's a hefty list of options. None will make a huge difference to the resale value though, but we'd opt for the reversing camera and the steering wheel paddle option. It's heated, too.

 

VERDICT

Volkswagen e-Golf rear quarter

It’s just like Volkswagen to produce a better electric hatchback than almost anyone else – one that does everything you might reasonably require of it to a distinguished standard – and then be totally content that, when all is said and done, it’s just another Volkswagen Golf.

That, after all, is precisely the point. The e-Golf isn’t a philosophical statement. It’s easily understood, easy to use and about as uncompromised as any mass-market, pure-electric car can be right now.

A predictably confident statement, and every bit the EV we'd expect from Volkswagen

There are compromises, of course. These are early days for electric motoring, and choosing to adopt it means accepting certain non-negotiable realities about how far and how fast you’re going to drive, where you’re going to charge and, sometimes, when you’ll be able to drive home again.

Yes, the Nissan Leaf is more usable and the BMW i3 more entertaining and desirable. But the e-Golf is an excellent EV – and as the landscape matures, it will be well placed to take advantage and with its enlarged range - you wouldn't bet against it.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen e-Golf 2014-2020 First drives