The Volkswagen e-Golf is the best electric vehicle (EV) I have ever driven. On dynamics alone it is arguably better than either the standard gas or diesel Golfs. More important, its post tax-credit price makes it a realistic option for consumers who can contend with its limited range.
That the e-Golf succeeds so well as a serious car only serves to highlight some of the problems that the novelty of other EVs disguise, however. Range, long term prices, and strangely environmental concerns remain.
On its own merits
The Volkswagen e-Golf doesn’t look like a performance dynamo on paper, with just 119 horsepower and a more compelling 199 electrically turbocharged torques. Indeed, thanks to a nearly 400 pound weight gain over the gas version, the e-Golf will struggle to get to 60mph in under 10 seconds. These figures sort of miss the point.
Electric motors are capable of delivering max power from 1rpm all the way to their redline. This gives the e-Golf a smoother and more appealing throttle response than either of its Jurassic-era, compost-powered siblings. The only area where the lack of power is really noticeable is at “left lane” highway speeds, where the electric motor just doesn’t have much more to give.
For an enthusiast there is compensation. The e-Golf may be packing the additional weight of an NFL nose guard wherever it goes, but the magic of improved weight distribution gives it subjectively improved handling. I was singularly impressed with just how neutral the handling was, an improvement on the normally noticeable understeer of the gas-powered models. This is a product of the Golf’s MQB modular platform having been designed to accommodate electric powertrains, with space specifically left under the load floor for a battery pack.
At the ragged edge of handling the suspension does betray its extra load, and get a bit dicey, but in everyday driving I would have to say I prefer the e-Golf.
The heart of things
The added weight comes courtesy of the e-Golf’s 688 pound, 24.2-kWh, lithium ion heart. This battery pack mounted under the rear load floor (with no loss of interior room for you), can under ideal circumstances propel the e-Golf more than 100 miles.
Any time the driver is not actively pressing the throttle the car engages the regenerative brakes.
Even according to VW most drivers are more likely to get somewhere between 70-90 miles of range. In my week with the e-Golf, the computers told me I was averaging closer to the 90-mile figure, despite pushing the car pretty hard. This was in large part thanks to the fact that I spent most of my time with the car in its most aggressive battery recuperation setting.
This means any time the driver is not actively pressing the throttle the car engages the regenerative brakes, sapping speed but regaining precious go-juice. The experience is initially disconcerting, as it reminded me of the terrible 3-speed transmission in my old Volvo 240. But once I got over the “malfunctioning automatic” sensation I really stopped noticing it at all. Were I to actually own an e-Golf, I would happily leave it in this setting and squeeze out the extra range.
And this extra range makes a difference, because as with most other EVs, charging time is an issue. Charging on regular 120-volt wall power takes an excruciating 24 hours. Drivers who don’t have any paint to watch dry will want to spring for the $550 240-volt charger, which can hit a full charge in only about four hours. Though owners who live in older houses should be warned, installing the 240-volt charger to old wiring can run up a bill of over $1,000.
So what’s the point?
With its range, dynamics, and all of the normal practicality of the Golf, the e-Golf would seem to be a great argument for EVs, and in a way it is. The first major hurdle is the price: My press loaner was listed at the scandalous price of $36,265, but a $7,500 federal tax credit knocks it down to around the cost of a diesel-powered Golf. If you are lucky enough to live in California, you can get an even better deal thanks to the state government’s $2,500 credit.
This government largesse means that the e-Golf can be directly compared to gasoline options. While this may highlight the limited range, a lot of people would also say it highlights the environmental advantages of the electric powertrain.
On the surface, the e-Golf does offer the planet a dramatic improvement thanks to the fact that it produces zero emissions and runs off of much more efficient grid power. However, as we have written about at several times, electric cars present their own set of environmental challenges. This is a long and complex story, but in essence, depending on which set of studies you believe, the immense energy costs of producing EVs can negate any advantage they have over internal combustion.
Other EVs can distract from this root problem with excitement, cache, or novelty; ironically the e-Golf runs into problems because it is fundamentally just a really excellent car.
This mundane excellence makes it tough not to bring the comparison back to the rest of the Golf family. For the same money it is possible to get a nicely equipped gasoline-powered golf, or better yet the diesel version, which may well be the environmentally friendlier option.
This puts the e-Golf in the decidedly strange position of being a genuinely good vehicle, and far better than many of its direct EV competitors, but with a very good reason not to buy it sitting right next to it in the show room.
The reality, simply put, is that the real reason to buy the e-Golf is the desire to own an EV — and that’s fine, ultimately. If you’re looking for an electric vehicle, you’d be hard pressed to do better than the e-Golf.
- Neutral handling
- Large and well laid out interior
- Comfortable and quiet ride
- Linear electric torque
- Mediocre range