2016 Volkswagen E-Golf quick review

24 April 2016

Having recommended the Nissan Leaf EV for a long time, it was time to try some of the newer EVs on the market. Having owned many different water-cooled VWs, we wanted to check VWs latest interpretation of the EV in the E-Golf. It's claimed that the current VW Golf chassis was designed for multiple types of drivetrains: combustion, hybrid, EV, etc. The battery pack of E-Golf does fit in neatly, but it has a double T shape that mostly resides in the transmission tunnel and behind the rear seats. It does seem Golf was a combustion chassis first and foremost. As Tesla has shown, a completely flat battery pack is quite possible and desirable for the lowest possible center of gravity. E-Golf battery pack is below, a picture from a cell phone video:

We stopped by Sunnyvale Volkswagen and Sales Consultant Husam Al Saffar very kindly let us test drive a brand new E-Golf. We were very pleased to learn that Sunnyvale Volkswagen is selling many E-Golfs. There were about a dozen in the lot and Husam said they had sold 15 on the previous Saturday. EVs are very popular around Silicon Valley and some large companies like Google, Apple and others either provide EV incentives to employees, or have discount or price credit relationships with the EV makers. BTW Husam deeply understands EVs and is clearly a supporter of them. Be sure to ask for him if you visit Sunnyvale Volkswagen. He's also a really nice guy.

Great news is that E-Golf drove like a Golf. It had relatively nimble responses as a somewhat sporty German car should. Steering was a bit lighter than expected, and perhaps ironically a bit more Japanese than European in that way. Sportier versions of Golf have firmer steering settings. But the steering was communicative of what was happening at the road in a typical German way, even while it was a bit too light, i.e., slightly overboosted.

Brake feel was not memorable, and that's a very good thing. One of the hardest things to do properly on an EV or hybrid is to seamlessly blend the regenerative braking with friction braking on the brake pedal. Having driven Volkswagens for decades, the brake feel is ingrained in my memory. If E-Golf felt like that memory, then VW got the braking right. And indeed, the brakes worked as expected after many years of experience with them, and did not draw attention to itself. Many manufacturers have difficulty integrating regen with the friction part of braking. Toyota took a generation or two of Priuses to get it right for example, though our slightly later Toyota-built original RAV4 EV had regen perfectly blended into seamless friction braking.

Suspension was responsive but not overly firm. We didn't really push it in our normal street driving. Autocrossing or some hard corners would be a much better test. We didn't do that on the test drive. :) E-Golf is about 370 pounds heavier than combustion Golfs, and the suspension tuning compensated for this pretty well. Very tiny slalom-wiggles of the steering generated yaw responses similar to what I remember for non-GTI Golfs. In other words the suspension tuning felt "normal" for a Golf, which is a positive. It might have even been a little stiffer, biased slightly towards performance versions, due to stiffer springs and dampers needed to handle the slightly greater weight.

Interestingly while other EVs do manifest the added heft of the battery pack at times, E-Golf seemed to carry it better. That could be due to the relatively soft suspension or better integrated chassis responses in general. Most German cars have chassis responses that are extremely well understood, engineered and tuned. They are drivers' cars. A little extra weight from the battery pack did not seem to noticeably distract from the E-Golf driving feel, as it occasionally does on other EVs including Tesla Model S which has an extremely competently-designed suspension.

Motor torque was strong at our relatively low speeds, but would presumably taper off at highway speeds like all AC induction motors. Some of the acceleration sensation of Golfs has always been exaggerated by relatively soft springs and damping allowing the nose to pitch up under heavy throttle, fooling the inner ear into perceiving a bit more acceleration than there actually is. Nonetheless the throttle, battery and motor response produced lots of torque especially from low speeds, which is always entertaining and useful in cut and thrust city driving.

More than anything else, the holistic, well-coordinated responses of steering, suspension and drivetrain made E-Golf one of the most enjoyable EVs to drive within its battery capacity, motor power and price range. That single-minded response to driver inputs is a hallmark of the Golf, and in many ways it's even clearer with the pure, effortless torque of an electric motor, which a combustion engine can never quite achieve as buttery smoothly or instantly. Electric motors are instant gratification at all times, and in the most pure and direct way possible.

E-Golf had sophisticated, carefully-designed and intuitive controls for regenerative braking. It used the left-right motion of the shifter to change to several presets of greater or lesser regen. It also had a toggled "B" engine-braking mode exactly like our 2001 Toyota RAV4 EV that enables heavy regen typically used for driving slowly down a steep hill. The control for that was toggled between D for "drive" and B for "engine" braking by clicking the shifter towards the back of the car. These are similar to upshift and downshift and mode selection on automatic transmission combustion VWs, and therefore a very nice adaptation to EVs.

In the lowest regen mode, there is only slight drag, simulating automatic transmission drag. This is a very safe, familiar, conventional and wise choice, since it's what most drivers of automatic transmission vehicles expect cars to do in very gradually slowing down the car when off throttle. Thankfully VW wisely avoids the cardinal sin of putting heavy regen only on the throttle, instead allowing selectable minimal regen when coming off throttle and putting most of the regen on the brake pedal where it properly belongs for safety, ergonomic and vehicle dynamics reasons.

It's very clear that Volkswagen benchmarked the Leaf for E-Golf. Weight, price, range, power, battery capacity, energy efficiency numbers are almost identical between them. But as cars they are very different. Leaf feels like a miniature Japanese bullet train executive transport. Smooth, silent and responsive, but very politely unobtrusive. E-Golf feels like a very responsive and fun small sports sedan. E-Golf's intense low end torque is highly entertaining, and the overall torque experience is so smooth and effortless that it's really something a combustion engine, however sophisticated, just can't do. The chassis response of E-Golf was decidedly sporty and a willing dance partner.

I will continue to recommend Leaf as a great commuter car, but E-Golf is worthy competition. It matches all the Leaf numbers but is a lot more fun to drive. If you're looking for a comfortable commuter, Leaf will work well. If you're looking for a sporty hatchback E-Golf is a much better choice.

In the big picture, electrification is a very positive way forward for Volkswagen. Hopefully the pain from the Dieselgate scandal will help clarify that for them. Husam mentioned that VW is working on electric versions of Jetta, Tiguan SUV and other platforms, so maybe they do get it. Hopefully they'll move even faster on EVs now. E-Golf is a great car, and optimistically it's the start of a new wave at VW.

Completely ignoring environmental concerns, electric vehicles have one third to one quarter of the operating cost per mile or kilometer of combustion cars, and also have near-zero maintenance costs. Long term, economics always wins, and EVs will eventually replace most combustion cars. Smarter manufacturers like Nissan and Tesla understood and acted on this several years earlier than dumber ones. GM could have owned this market for 20 years if they had kept building and developing the EV1 instead of stupidly crushing it. Even GM is seeing the light with the upcoming 200-mile-range Bolt EV.

E-Golf has optional support for fast charging with a Combined Charging System (CCS) connector. Cost for the optional CCS capability is about $1500. CCS is the latest American and European standard for fast charging that builds on the global J1772 charging standard, adding a couple high power pins to a J1772-backward compatible connector. The CCS fast charger network is not as well built-out as Tesla's Superchargers, and there is a fee to use it, but it is one of the three major fast charging networks currently deployed worldwide, in addition to the Japanese-led CHAdeMO network. Sunnyvale Volkswagen very proudly added a public CCS fast charger last week.

It's worth mentioning that fast charging usually isn't needed except on very long drives. Most people charge at night at home when rates are low, and they have a "full tank" in the morning. Road trips will become more practical and fast charging more needed as battery capacities continue to increase. (Lithium ion batteries are improving at about 5 to 8 percent a year.)

E-Golfs will be coming back from lease returns in about 3 years with a residual value of about $13k. Those will represent great values as used cars, like used Leafs, and the battery packs should be in nearly new condition at that young age.

BTW, spot the E-Golf by looking for the blue outline VW badges front and rear, white LED C-shaped driving lights below the headlamps, and mostly flat disc style 16 inch wheels. Also look for E-Golf nameplates on rear hatch, front fascia and front fender sides. There's also a subtle, horizontal, blue line on the front fascia where GTIs have two red lines. BTW2, E-Golf is currently built exclusively in Germany at Wolfsburg. Hopefully it will expand production to other factories in future.

So only a few visual cues identify E-Golf as electric. It may be somewhat unusual marketing to not make a more distinctive looking car for VW's first very popular EV. That has advantages and disadvantages; it emphasizes the Golf-ness of it, but doesn't gain much mindshare for making a pretty revolutionary change in how their cars work. On the other hand Golf is a very strong brand, and leveraging it to introduce EVs may be a sign that VW is trying to mainstream EVs by legitimizing them as one new type of the very popular Golf.

For counterpoint, Nissan deliberately made Leaf distinctive looking so that people could know it was an EV instantly upon seeing it. That promotes the idea of making EVs almost as a public good, and it raises the profile of the entire Nissan brand as boldy moving forward with EVs. That said, EVs inevitably will become mainstream over time, regardless of how manufacturers position them in the short term.