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The industry's biggest power makes a plug-in hybrid for the masses, but is the Volkswagen Golf GTE as sporty as its name suggests?

We’ve already had Volkswagen the all-electric e-Golf pass through a full Autocar road test; now it’s the turn of the plug-in hybrid version, dubbed GTE.

Plainly, that ‘E’ is for electricity, but what Volkswagen means by the rest of the badge is ‘Gran Turismo’ – as it does for the GTI and Volkswagen diesel-powered Volkswagen GTD.

This is a Volkswagen Golf we're talking about here, and the world's biggest car maker is renowned for getting things right when it comes to its prodigal son

Positioning your hybrid as a sporty option is certainly not new, but it does burden the GTE with additional buyer expectation. Not only does the first hybrid Golf have to be studiously parsimonious, but it also has to go about its business with a degree of hot hatch verve.

That’s a tall order when you consider that the model’s sister car, the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, failed to set the world alight when we tested it, but the Passat GTE certainly received a warmer reception although it has never been perceived as a sporty variant of the saloon.

However, there are reasons to be cheerful – not least that this is a Volkswagen Golf we’re talking about here, and the world’s biggest car maker is renowned for getting things right when it comes to its prodigal son.

The rewards for doing so are potentially seismic. With the demonisation of diesel likely to hit a higher gear in years to come as European emissions legislation takes greater account of nitrogen oxides and particulates, Europe’s buying public is likely to take a wider interest in hybrid technology than ever before.

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The prospect of finding a household name at every VW dealer, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing and apparently free from compromise, is feasibly the nudge many may need to finally embrace the idea of plugging a car into the mains electricity every night.

For others, specifically business users, the nudge is already unnecessary. They will not need this test to tell them that running a GTE will mean a substantial benefit-in-kind company car tax saving versus a diesel.

That this five-door-only car gets GT-strength status in the first place is conceivably a ploy to Volkswagen lure middle managers out of their beloved GTDs. Or it might just be the real thing. Let’s find out.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf GTE rear

Visually, Volkswagen has deposited the GTE somewhere between an Volkswagen e-Golf and the GTI.

The new model has the same C-shaped LED daytime running lights as Volkswagen the all-electric battery-powered Golf and shares the marine blue accents that have long been the declared colour scheme of Volkswagen’s e-mobility marketing push. On the GTE, though, they replace exactly the red motif used on the GTI, and the hybrid shares that car’s horizontal fins in the bumper. A small facelift in 2017, saw the GTE left relatively untouched with new LED lights at the front and rear, a new plush infotainment system and new bumpers.

Putting the recharging socket on the front of the car is daft. The last thing any of us need are more silent cars reversing out of parking spaces. Sounds piffling, except it isn't

The GTE appears lower and leaner than a standard Volkswagen Golf, too. It’s an advantage of the sports suspension that lowers it by around 10mm, and the 18in alloy wheels – an inch larger than the ones with which Audi chose to supply the Audi A3 e-tron.

Underneath, however, the two cars are virtually indistinguishable. The GTE gets the same 148bhp 1.4 TSI petrol engine, which drives the front wheels in conjunction with a 101bhp electric motor built into the same housing as that used by the bespoke six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

As with the e-tron, this means that even when running on battery power alone, the car still drives through its six ratios, and will do so up to a speed of around 80mph.

The timing of the petrol engine’s introduction depends on which of the five operating modes is selected, although the car is almost always tow-started by the electric motor via a secondary clutch that closes when the petrol engine is up to speed.

Despite including Audi an intentionally sporty and mechanically collaborative ‘GTE’ setting that didn’t feature on the A3 e-tron, the Golf produces the same combined outputs of 201bhp and 258lb ft. Nevertheless, the latter figure is still equivalent to the peak torque value claimed for the current GTI, while the outright power is Volkswagen slightly superior to that of the GTD.

Predictably, though, the GTE has Audi the same weight problem as the A3 e-tron. Unlike many previous hybrids, the MQB platform allows the 8.8kWh battery to be stowed under the rear seats rather than all the way back under the boot floor (although that’s still where the petrol tank is relocated), but it’s still 120kg of additional mass no matter where it’s located.

Together with the rest of the required tech, that makes the claimed 1599kg unladen kerb weight a slender owner away from being 300kg heavier than the Golf GTI

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf GTE interior

Despite it being one of the GTE’s best features, we won’t dwell too long on the cabin – mainly because Volkswagen hasn’t either. This is deliberate.

‘The future is familiar’ – one of the firm’s e-mobility tag lines – means that you should have trouble distinguishing Volkswagen an electric or plug-in hybrid Golf from any other.

I complained about the Audi A3 e-tron only having one EV mode button, but the GTE's two made me no happier. Now there are too many features that need searching for on the infotainment screen

That rings true in the GTE, where, aside from some buttons on the centre console and marginally less boot capacity due to the slightly raised floor, there is really nothing materially different about the hybrid.

That, of course, is a good thing, because practically, ergonomically and perceptibly, the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf is about as good as mainstream hatches get.

The GTE’s only noticeable enhancements are limited to trim-level tinsel; like the exterior, it gets a variation on the GTI theme, with blue highlights again replacing the red in the stitching and the tartan stripe on the sports seats.

It comes with an appropriate amount of kit for its price  - with the GTE getting all the standard equipment found on a GT trimmed Volkswagen Golf, while also getting dual-zone climate control, e-remote mobile service subscription, efficient driving software, unique 17in alloy wheels and numerous sporty touches. While paying a bit more gets you the GTE Advance with its sat nav, heated front seats, rear tinted windows, 18in wheels and an exterior sound generator designed to let the public know you are there when the car is in electric mode. 

Other niggles? Well, the revised instrument cluster eschews the handy battery meter Audi sported by the A3 e-tron, but otherwise, like all Volkswagen Golfs, this is a nice place in which to spend any amount of time.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen Golf GTE front quarter

The first and most pertinent thing to say about the GTE’s performance is that you need to charge the battery from the mains in order to get the best from it.

That might sound obvious, but once you learn how adept the car is at recharging its electrical supply from the engine in range-extension mode, there’s a temptation to simply park it on the driveway and let the petrol engine pick up the slack next time out.

The Golf GTE tends to be at its most economical when you leave it to make the decisions about how and when to mingle its power sources

This, however, is a mistake. The extent to which Peter is robbing Paul while using this mode is evidenced by the fact that, unlike the Audi A3 e-tron, Volkswagen conceals the rolling battery recharge function in a sub-menu on the touchscreen, not among the centre console buttons. Interestingly, only by pushing these can you access the all-electric mode, battery hold (essentially petrol engine only) and the all-action GTE mode, which we’ll come to in a minute.

This is not unreasonable; in many ways the GTE is at its most likeable when solely troubling its electric motor. But, like the Audi, the Volkswagen Golf tends to be at its most economical (in varied, longer-distance use) when you leave it to make the decisions about how and when to mingle its power sources.

This it does well enough to be noticeably better than the e-tron we drove last year – most likely the result of an additional few months’ worth of software updates.

Whichever mode you choose, the initial pull-away is handled electrically before the petrol engine cuts in (almost immediately if the battery is drained, not until 30-40mph if it isn’t). The result, when driven modestly, is very quiet, brisk and sleekly aloof.

The problem – if we can call it that – is that there’s very little incentive to trigger the quicker GTE mode because (a) it drains the battery you’ve been conscientiously trying to preserve, and (b) the claimed sub-8.0sec 0-62mph time comes with none of the deeper thrill implied by the ‘GT’ element of the badge when you do finally experience it.

What you get instead when you flatten the GTE’s accelerator pedal is a lot of frothy torque as the motor and engine combine quite vigorously low down. But at full throttle you also get the slightly dreary, disconnected feel of the TSI lump revving like it’s connected to a 20-year-old CVT – which simply doesn’t suit a machine with sporting ambitions.

More often than not, we let the car do its own thing, or scooted silently about on battery power alone. Which is fine. It suggests that the GTE works rather well as an easy-going daily driver, in fact.

But it isn’t, perhaps, as effective when it’s trying to step into energetic hot hatch mode and be the well-rounded sporting hybrid that its marketing suggests it is.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf GTE cornering

Part of the problem with the GTE’s performance is the extra weight that continually hinders it.

In electric mode, there’s the mass of a temporarily redundant petrol engine to hobble your urban efficiency. Push on in petrol-only or petrol-electric mode and there’s that considerable lithium ion battery pack to hold you back.

Where the Audi A3 e-tron's absorbent suspension made it suffer, the Golf's lowered, firmer set-up allows you to carry more speed through the front-end - and the superior steering makes you better aware of it

Dynamically, there’s the lot, pushing down unmistakably harder on the springs than a standard Volkswagen Golf ever would and asking more of the tyres, dampers and anti-roll bars at every corner and crest.

For the most part, the GTE’s firm-by-nature sports suspension bears up well under the extra burden, feeling consistent and quiet-riding enough to suit the often hushed backdrop.

But the hybrid is plainly less effective at isolating you from sharp-edged obstacles than its stablemates (including the Golf R) are, and the resulting disruptions gently nibble away at the class-leading comfort levels usually delivered by other incarnations of the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf.

Nevertheless, a Golf it steadfastly remains, and the model retains more of Audi its core identity than the A3 managed in plug-in hybrid format. It steers well. Fettled to be very light at manoeuvring speeds (further assistance for parking is redundant), the rack weights up credibly at speed, yielding the moderately quick and very precise steering that underpins the nameplate’s famed driveability.

That familiar ease of use – enhanced further by the glossiness of the GTE’s all-electric mode – doesn’t dip with more effort, as the lowered chassis upshifts into quicker progress without evident protest.

Here, too, the GTE exudes the usual Golf qualities, being grippy, direct and accomplished to the point of nonchalance. Because its sweeter steering makes for a more agreeable front end, the car is better able to make a virtue of the redressed cornering balance caused by the battery located between its axles.

However, the extra mass is a burden still, the GTE having none of the light-footedness we associate with heated-up hatchbacks.

So while its competence and naturally high levels of adhesion and control allow you to thrum along quite contentedly, there’s precious little effervescence or gusto in anything this hybrid does.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf GTE

For now, plug-in hybrids continue to reap the benefits of the government’s plug-in car grant of up to £5000, meaning the GTE’s £33,035 recommended price can be trimmed to £28,035 for the end user.

That makes it more than £2000 cheaper than the Audi A3 e-tron and a direct rival for something like the markedly inferior Toyota Prius Plug-in. Fully electric options such as the Nissan Leaf or Volkswagen ’s own e-Golf are priced lower but obviously come with range anxiety attached.

Our True MPG testers returned a fuel economy average of 43.8mpg on internal combustion alone

The GTE sidesteps such issues, although its battery-only autonomy is significantly smaller than that of an e-Golf. Volkswagen quotes 31 miles, but expect to experience less in the real world. Only those with enviably short commutes (or somewhere to plug in during the day) are likely to enjoy completely combustion-free motoring in regular use.

After draining the battery completely, our True MPG testers returned a fuel economy average of 43.8mpg on internal combustion alone. Ask the petrol engine to take on recharging duties simultaneously and you can expect that to drop well below 40mpg.

However, replenish the battery from the mains – which takes just under four hours – and with considerate driving in hybrid mode, on a mix of A and B-roads the car comfortably managed the 60mpg-plus Audi we saw in the A3 e-tron. Not the 166mpg claimed, of course, but a decent rival for turbodiesel power, away from a motorway at least.

On CO2 emissions, at 39g/km, there is no contest, making the GTE exempt from road tax and, more importantly, an extraordinarily good-value 5 percent prospect for the benefit-in-kind company car tax-paying business user. So a 20 per cent tax-paying fleet driver could be liable for less than £30 per month in benefit-in-kind, rather than, say, £70 per month on a comparable turbodiesel.

There's no three-door option, so there's only one GTE to have. Unless your range requirements are modest and very predictable, that is, in which case we'd recommend that you go the whole hog and buy the all-electric e-Golf.

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VERDICT

Volkswagen Golf GTE rear quarter

We find ourselves on familiar ground. As with the Audi A3 e-tron – a car we liked with various provisosthe GTE is a good plug-in hybrid by the fledgling standards we use to judge them.

It offers a usable zero-emissions range, is potentially cheap to run, has strong performance and is every bit as practical as a Volkswagen Golf should be. Given that it steers better, drives more smoothly and is notably cheaper than the Audi, we’d recommend it over that car.

The Golf GTE is an enticing all-round option that exudes the usual Golf qualities - but it won't thrill

But the GTE badge, and its implied sporting prowess, niggles. This car too often strains to be something it isn’t. Given the choice, we’d ditch the GTE tinsel and trust Volkswagen simply to make this hybrid best resemble the brilliant all-rounder that is the standard Volkswagen Golf.

That may not have suited status-concerned company car drivers or the necessarily high price, but it would most likely have delivered a genuinely enjoyable plug-in car rather than the merely very respectable one that this is.

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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 Golf GTE 2014-2020 First drives