Volkswagen GTE Pre-Production First Drive Report: Can a Hot Hatch be Green?

Should an affordable plug-in hybrid focus just on fuel efficiency? Can it have a sportier side? And can a plug-in hybrid drivetrain help petrol heads make the gentle switch from fossil-fuels to electric?

The Volkswagen GTE wants to be the car to tempt people away from gas-guzzling hot hatches.

The Volkswagen GTE wants to be the car to tempt people away from gas-guzzling hot hatches.

These are the questions being asked by Volkswagen, whose Golf GTE plug-in hybrid is due to launch later this year. Available alongside the all-electric e-Golf, Volkswagen is pitching the GTE as a sporty, environmentally-conscious alternative to the GTi and GTD models.

As part of Volkswagen’s international e-Golf launch event at the Templehoff airfield in the heart of Berlin, Volkswagen was offering short, accompanied test drives of early Golf GTE pre-production prototypes. Naturally, we had to have a go.

From the outside, there’s very little to differentiate the GTE from the rest of the Golf lineup. like the e-Golf, a few styling tweaks here and there at close quarters mark the GTE apart from the rest of the Golf family. Inside however, the GTE appears just as spacious as any other Mk VIII Golf.

The Golf GTE has the same touch-screen centre console found in the e-Golf.

The Golf GTE has the same touch-screen centre console found in the e-Golf.

Unlike the e-Golf — which uses a traditional keyed ignition system — the Golf GTE switches on with a single press of a small start/stop button located to the left of the car’s large touch-screen centre console.

When first turned on, the Golf GTE defaults to all-electric drive, using an 80 kilowatt electric motor and 8.8 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack for motive power.  In this mode, Volkswagen claims a range of around 30 miles per charge on the NEDC test cycle. In real-world conditions, we’d guess that’s nearer 20 — although our short test-drive wasn’t enough to properly gauge range.

Under electric power, there’s more than enough torque to keep up with traffic with 60 mph being reached in around 11 seconds, slightly slower than the e-Golf’s 0-62 mph time of 10.7 seconds.

Engage GTE mode with a single push of the GTE button next to the gear selector, and the 1.6 litre turbocharged stratified fuel injection engine kicks in. In this mode, 0-62 mph is accomplished in 7.6 seconds, a time more suited to the GTE’s performance-oriented badge.

Driving the front wheels through a triple-clutch, seven-speed DSG gearbox, the gasoline engine can work in tandem with the electric motor, or independently of it. This allows the driver to reserve electric-only mode for zero emission zones and city-centre driving.

The GTE badge hints at the car's heritage.

The GTE badge hints at the car’s heritage.

Talking of the gearbox, the GTE’s seven-speed automatic transmission only works with the petrol engine, since the motor is connected behind, not in front, of the gearbox. Capable of operating in fully-automatic or tiptronic modes — where the gears can be shifted by either steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters or by tapping the gear lever — the GTE moves through the gearbox even when driving in electric mode. This is so that the gearbox is always in an appropriate gear should the engine be required.

We noticed that the gearbox seemed a little slow to respond to our gear-change requests when driving in manual shift mode. There was also a noticeable lag between power demand and power delivery when in GTE mode. However, since this was a pre-production car, we think it’s unfair to mark the car down for this particular flaw as engineers were very open with us about plans for future gearbox and transmission tuning before the car enters production.

Under the bonnet, there's a 1.6-litre TSI engine and an 80 kilowatt electric motor.

Under the bonnet, there’s a 1.6-litre TSI engine and an 80 kilowatt electric motor.

In regular rather than GTE hybrid mode, we found this happened rather rarely with a fully-charged battery. Only when pushing the car hard under full kick-down acceleration did the engine turn on, although we suspect the engine would activate more frequently at higher speeds than it did at lower ones.

The Volkswagen Golf GTE is the latest Golf family member to be given the Grand Touring (GT) suffix, joining the Golf GTi and GTD as Volkswagen’s environmentally-conscious yet high-performance, long-distance car.

With a predicted combined petrol and electric range in excess of 560 miles, it’s likely the GTE will certainly fulfil the second part of that with ease.

And the first?  Does the GTE live up to its name as a sporty plug-in hybrid?

Based on what we’ve seen so far — which equated to just ten minutes on a test track in a pre-production vehicle — we think it does. At least, the GTE has what it takes to prove a hit with performance fans who yearn for something powerful but feel the pain of the petrol pump. Provided the pre-production flaws we noticed are of course ironed out before the car enters production.

The Volkswagen GTE allows you to choose between electric, hybrid, or GTE (sport) mode.

The Volkswagen GTE allows you to choose between electric, hybrid, or GTE (sport) mode.

With only a 31 mile range in electric mode and a slower 0-62mph time than the all-electric e-Golf, electric car fans might feel disappointed, perhaps even cheated. Because of this, there’s even an argument for performance fans skipping the GTE altogether and choosing the e-Golf instead.

But the GTE isn’t a car for people who want to drive electric.  As an electric car it’s not all that impressive.

Then it isn’t meant to be: the Golf GTE is a car for people who aren’t ready to dump the pump for good, either because of practical reasons — like needing to drive cross country on a regular basis — or plain old-fashioned range anxiety.

Yet because its battery pack can recharge from empty to full in a little over 2.5 hours from a type 2 charging station, we think the GTE will, like the Chevrolet Volt or Vauxhall Ampera, spend a large portion of its time in EV mode. Unlike other plug-in hybrids, the GTE doesn’t feel asthmatic in EV mode either. In fact, we’d say it feels more strained with the engine than without it.

The GTE is essentially a transition car: one which helps hardened petrol heads move from gasoline to electric. It’s also a mildly hot hatch. And from what we’ve seen so far, it has the potential to persuade city-dwellers to make that switch to a plug.

Volkswagen provided airfare, lodging and meals to enable us to bring you this first drive report.


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