The ordinary-looking Volkswagen Golf Mk6 pictured below is actually a prototype running VW’s upcoming plug-in hybrid drivetrain.
I was in Wolfsburg yesterday (where it was minus 5 degrees centigrade under a clear blue sky) and had a brief steer around the local roads.
I know what most of you are thinking: ‘hybrid, shymbrid’. That’s fair enough when hybrids are expensive and often not as economical in the real world as a diesel.
Indeed petrol-hybrids were originally developed by Toyota to deliver better economy in a Californian market that had pollution laws so strict that diesels were a non-starter and a home market that didn’t much care for oil-burners either. Really, petrol-electric hybrids are about low pollution as much as they are about high economy.
This Golf, however, is about coming up with a petrol-electric drivetrain that makes nonsense of zero-local pollution pure battery cars and is still an entirely practical proposition that can be used to drive from one end of the country to the other.
The Golf has a big enough battery to allow the driver to cover up to 31 miles on a single charge of the battery. The engineer in charge wouldn’t tell me what size the battery was, but I’d guess at around 10kWh.
Secondly, it uses a very clever combination of 147bhp 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine, punchy 96bhp electric motor, a 7-speed DSG gearbox and a second clutch which can bring the engine in and out of the drivetrain.
Drive away from rest, and the car runs on pure battery power. Shifting up through the DSG gearbox, the Golf runs quietly and seamlessly, feeling more direct in its power delivery and more like a conventional car than the Nissan Leaf.
What’s extremely neat is the way the electric motor is used to spin-up the engine when the driver presses on enough to require power from the engine. Hit the gas and the engine flicks instantly to life, the rev counter needle seemingly running from zero to a steady 2000rpm in the blink of an eye.
Compared to the CVT-driven Prius (which is not only wooden in its ride and handling, but made unpleasant by the droning transmission) this Golf is remarkably normal and fleet-footed.
Having spent nearly a year in the Nissan Leaf, I am increasingly coming around to the idea that the future of zero-emission urban driving lies with new-generation plug-in hybrids. The 30-mile range is enough for daily use (though you really need home-charging to make that work) and the excellent new-generation petrol turbo engine works well for the rest of time. The way it is integrated with the electric motor is particularly impressive.
Really, I can’t see why anyone who wants zero-emission running in town - and can only afford one car - would not go with a car like this Golf. It is far more versatile than a Leaf and it is much more pleasant to drive than a Prius. Moreover, the Golf Mk7 petrol hybrid will also be more fuel efficient in petrol-mode than a range-extender such as the Chevy Volt, as well as having only marginally shorter battery range.
We won’t see the car before mid-2013, but VW’s typical thoughtful and thorough engineering approach could yet substantially steal what market there is for urban-battery power and, depending on price, put a big hole in Nissan and Renault’s EV assault.