The Volkswagen e-Golf is, at its core, a Volkswagen Golf. That's not some metaphorical, figurative thing either. This isn't about "the platform," or "the feel" – it is a Volkswagen Golf. Except for the fact that it's powered by electricity. And I love the electricness of it, but the problem is the Golfiness.
Or rather, the baggage that comes with the Golfiness of it. Because electric cars are supposed to, at their heart, feel like the future. This, well, doesn't. And that would be fine, or rather, that should be fine. There's nothing wrong with feeling like a Golf. A Volkswagen Golf is a swell car. A great car. And making this one electric, just means it's a great car that happens not to have any pistons.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen wanted me to drive the e-Golf so bad, that I paid for my own subway ticket to take me up to a VW dealership on the west side of Manhattan. They had an e-Golf waiting for me, though sadly without a full charge because lots of other people had been driving it throughout the day. I drove it for roughly half an hour, give or take a few minutes, up the West Side Highway.
Yes, I know, half an hour up the West Side Highway is not exactly the most thorough test you can get, but sometimes you've got to work with what you've got.
I also paid for my own subway ticket back to the office.)
If you've driven a Golf at any point in the past few years, you know what I'm talking about. Fit and finish is swell, everything feels very nice, and this one's no different in that regard. The propulsion unit is very different though, in that it's a little bitty electric motor under the hood.
Seriously, electric motors are tiny as all hell. Just look at how much room is left:
And, as has become the cliché about electric cars, it's incredibly smooth and quiet. It's got 115 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, which is good enough to quietly bring it up to highway speeds in a little over 10 seconds, which won't exactly set your hair on fire.
But what definitely won't set your hair on fire is the power settings in Eco mode, when power is actually truncated to 94 horsepower and 162 pound-feet. The air conditioning is restricted a bit, too, and the throttle response is flattened out a bit. Zero-to-60 takes a little over 13 seconds, which is a number most people haven't seen in a new car for a damn long time, but hell, it's called "Eco" mode.
Also, top speed is limited to 72 MPH.
It's about saving the environment, you repeat to yourself, softly, quietly, to assuage the fear generated by the zooming taxis around you when you just can't quite keep up. So that's fine. We need to save the environment, as pretty soon it's going to try and kill us anyways since we've been so horrible to it for so long.
You lightly tap your fingers on the top of the steering wheel, patient but steely-eyed, watching the world go by. It'd almost be poetic, in a terrible mumblecore sort of way, if the Volkswagen Golf wasn't an economic force that has dominated the hatchback industry for well over 30 years now.
And then I was instructed to put it into Eco+ mode.
"Eco... p-p-plus?" I stammered out, in my mind. Regular Eco mode was fine, if a bit unnervingly slow. But here was even more of that. Eco+ sounds great on paper, as you'll be saving the environment, plus. You'll basically be doing repairs to Gaia as you whirr along.
But it also limits the power to just 74 horses and 129 pound-feet of torque. Top speed is now limited to 56 MPH, and the accelerator response is basically flattened with a steamroller.
And because I am a glutton for punishment, I immediately tried merging with it onto the West Side Highway.
All I can say is, try not to put it into Eco+ mode on the West Side Highway. You'll have roughly the equivalent acceleration of a fully-laden school bus, without any of the heft that scares others into plowing into you. Thankfully, no one plowed into the poor little e-Golf, but from the sound of their blaring horns they definitely considered it.
So if you're merging onto the highway, keep it out of Eco+.
The eGolf does have some neat tricks, like a transmission mode that uses engine braking to charge the batteries. It's so good at regen, in fact, that when you lift off the gas, it's like tapping the brakes. It takes a bit getting used to at first, but then you find yourself using only one pedal to stop and go, rather than two. So, yay, even more efficiencies.
All in all then, the eGolf feels like a great Golf. It's everything you could want from a hyper-efficient city commuter.
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this doesn't feel like a Golf at all. What it feels like is compliance.
The Volkswagen e-Golf is definitely not a bad car. But it's part of a gang of miscreants that, at their core, feel half-assed. All your common criminals are in there, of course. You've got the Kia Soul EV, the Ford Focus Electric, and even the Fiat 500e.
They're all electric, they're all (relatively) expensive, and they're all too little, too late. Because there's a new sheriff on the horizon, riding into town.
And that sheriff's name is Tesla.
Specifically, the Tesla Model 3. The $35,000 all-electric car coming to fight fossil-fueled powered vehicles like the Mercedes C-Class and the BMW 3-series.
And if the Tesla Model S is any predictor for the Model 3, it'll blow cars like the Volkswagen e-Golf out of the water, mostly because an eGolf will set you back around $35,000, give or take a couple hundred bucks. Sure, it's equipped to the equivalent of a top-of-the-line Golf TSi, and you'll get some tax rebates with that, but you should get tax rebates with the Tesla, too.
So for around a $5,000-ish price difference, you'll likely end up getting two vastly different cars: One meant to compete with the likes of entry-level luxury, and one meant to to compete with optioned-up economy hatchbacks.
You get a Volkswagen Golf that hasn't been built ground-up for electric driving, but rather has been adapted to it. What that means is that instead of having a floor lined with lithium-ion batteries, a la the $75,000 Tesla Model S, Volkswagen just shoved a couple of batteries where the spare tire would be.
So instead of getting an electric car with range of upwards of 200 miles, you're getting an electric car with a range of 70 miles at worst, and 90 miles at best in Normal mode. Bump it into the tepidly slow Eco and Eco+ modes, and you're looking at a little over 100 miles of range.
Let me put it to you this way. Imagine getting a very nice veggie wrap. You find that it satisfies many of your nutrient needs, and that's fine.
Really, just fine.
And then someone tells you your veggie salad wrap will cost $35,000. Which is a bit much for a veggie salad wrap.
But for double the price, you'll get a veggie salad wrap, plus a hearty dose of the latest crazy cocktail DuPont has been cooking up in a secret lab for the last decade and a half, to be served in all the swankiest speakeasies the world over. Plus a side of blowtorch, for the requisite hair-fire-setting.
That's the difference between the Volkswagen and the Tesla.
For the future, that veggie wrap isn't good enough. And even for now, I wouldn't say a Volkswagen e-Golf is worth half the price of a Tesla Model S. The Tesla is just that much more than twice the car.
Sure, the Volkswagen e-Golf is a great Golf, for now.
But a crackling electric storm is on the horizon.
Photos credit: Michael Ballaban/Jalopnik