The Volkswagen Passat GTE is the latest in a burgeoning number of ultra-low-emission mid-size plug-in petrol-electric hybrids to be launched in recent times.
To be sold in the UK in both saloon and, as driven here, estate bodystyles, the Passat GTE shares various elements of its high-tech driveline with the recently introduced Golf GTE. As with the smaller hatch, the plug-in Passat has the capability to run exclusively on electric propulsion for extended distances or on a combination of petrol and electric power.
Set to rival the Volvo S60 Plug-In Hybrid and BMW 340e, the new Passat GTE sports a specially tuned version of Volkswagen’s turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that develops 164bhp and 184lb ft as its primary form of propulsion.
The transversely mounted combustion engine is supported by an electric motor sited within the forward section of a standard six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, from where it produces 113bhp and 243lb ft. The disc-shaped unit can operate on its own in zero-emission electric mode or in tandem with the petrol engine for added performance
Volkswagen quotes a combined system output for the Passat GTE of 215bhp and 295lb ft, giving Wolfsburg’s latest plug-in petrol-electric hybrid a subtle 14bhp and 37lb ft more than the smaller Golf GTE.
The driver can choose between four different driving modes: E-mode, Hybrid, Battery Charge and GTE. Volkswagen claims an electric range of up to 31 miles at speeds up to 81mph in the default E-mode, in which the Passat GTE always starts. In the GTE mode, the efforts of the petrol and electric motor are pooled to provide a claimed 0-62mph time of 7.6sec and a 140mph top speed.
With an official combined fuel consumption figure of 176mpg, Volkswagen claims average CO2 emissions of just 37g/km.
Energy for the electric motor is provided by a 9.9kWh lithium ion battery. Some 1.2kWh larger than the Panasonic-produced battery used by the Golf GTE, it is assembled at Volkswagen’s Braunschweig research and development facility from cells supplied by Samsung.
Charging time on regular 240V mains electricity is put at 4hr 15min, although customers can also choose an optional 360V wallbox that is claimed to provide a full charge in 2hr 30min. As with the Golf GTE, the charging socket is hidden behind a flap in the grille.
With its fuel tank, which is mounted slightly rearwards from its position on regular Passats, brimmed and the battery, which sits underneath the rear seat, fully charged, Volkswagen says the Passat GTE boasts a theoretical range of up to 622 miles.
The Passat GTE is really two cars in one. On the one hand, it is a highly practical electric car with a truly useful zero-emission range. On the other, it is a consummate and refined long-distance cruiser capable of delivering decent fuel consumption. Just don’t think of it as a performance car. Despite boasting more than adequate combined reserves, it is also laboured with an additional 350kg over the standard Passat 1.4 TSI.
There are a number of subtle exterior styling changes that serve to differentiate the new plug-in hybrid from its existing siblings. Included is a uniquely styled front bumper with distinctive LED daytime running lights, blue accents within the grille, GTE decals on each of the front wings and model-specific alloys – 17in 'Montpellier' wheels as standard, but optional 18in items on our test car.
Inside, VW's plug-in hybrid-specific instruments reflect the dual propulsion with an energy gauge and various LED graphics included, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with blue stitching, an altered gearshift knob, high-gloss black trim applications and new seat trims.
Although the relocation of the fuel tank has taken up some of the boot's underfloor cargo space, accommodation is the same as that of other existing Passats, with the estate providing a nominal 650 litres of capacity below the cargo blind.
As with the Golf GTE, the new Passat GTE has been configured to start in E-mode when the battery is sufficiently charged. With maximum torque on tap the moment you depress the throttle, the electric motor provides strong propulsion up to typical urban speed limits.
Overall refinement in electric mode is superb, with a smooth delivery and silent running traits making it a pleasurable steer. The damping characteristics in electric mode are more comfort-orientated than in Hybrid mode, giving the Passat GTE plenty of pothole-fighting compliance around town.
If your journey is longer than the indicated electric range, it is possible to preserve battery charge and then use it later when it is more effective or beneficial, say in an urban low or zero-emission zone.
When the energy stores of the battery are depleted, the combustion engine fires to instantly increase performance. Alternatively, you can press a button marked GTE on the centre console or nudge the gearlever to alter the reserves manually.
The change in propulsion is seamless. While you do notice the operation of the petrol unit, it is superbly isolated from the cabin. At the same time, the mapping of the throttle, steering and gearbox are altered to provide them with a more sporting feel, while the damping is also firmed up.
The driver can monitor which mode is chosen via a display in the instrument binnacle. There is also a range of optional power graphics available, including a range monitor, energy flow indicator, zero-emission statistics, e-manager and, in combination with the optional navigation system, a '360 range' feature that provides information on charging stations.
On the open road in Hybrid mode, the Passat GTE is reasonably swift with fine throttle response and a good deal of mid-range shove. The boosting properties of the electric motor provide impressive overtaking qualities on the kickdown. It is at a constant cruise with the petrol engine operating below 2000rpm, though, where it is at its most impressive.
Despite the added weight brought on by the new plug-in hybrid system, the Passat GTE is imbued with satisfying dynamic traits. The steering, while lacking feel, is quite direct, allowing you to place it well on the road. An uprated suspension also provides it with impressive body control. The ride, one if its real strong points, is excellent.
In stop-start traffic our test car suffered some shunt through the transmission in the transition from first to second gear. There was also an irritating sponginess within the initial degrees of brake travel as the kinetic energy recuperation system began to cycle.
In an urban driving environment with constant stopping between traffic lights it is better to slot the gear lever into an alternative B (for brake) program to increase the resistance of the recuperation.
These minor niggles aside, there is a satisfying solidness and feeling of engineering thoroughness to the Passat GTE. This alone is reason enough to recommend it to anyone seeking an alternative to what many see as the default mid-class company car purchase, the Passat TDI.
If you live within 30 miles of your workplace and have easy access to a charging point, the new Volkswagen could allow you to go the whole week without ever needing its combustion engine to fire. On a tempered throttle in urban surroundings it is extraordinarily refined and frugal for a car that, in estate guise, provides such outstanding space and practicality.
Nevertheless, the plug-in petrol-electric technology it showcases comes at a steep price, and for many this premium will prove too much to make it a real alternative. For while it proves to be outstandingly economical when you’re able to combine electric and petrol-electric running over shorter distances, it still can’t compete with a diesel for running costs over an extended journey – even if you source the electricity for free.
Volkswagen Passat GTE
Price £37,500 (est); Engine 4 cyls, 1398cc, petrol plus electric motor; Power 215bhp (combined); Torque 295 lb ft (combined). Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight 1660kg; 0-62mph 7.6sec; Top speed 140mph; Economy 176.6mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 37g/km, 5%