The all-electric version of the Volkswagen Golf, which went on sale in November 2014, joined a relatively crowded field of small battery-powered cars. Here’s how it stands out: by its smart mainstream style that doesn’t scream out for attention as a space-age vehicle. The Golf is an ultra-popular platform that combines comfort, practicality, refinement and tasteful Teutonic lines—inside and out. Instrumentation follows a classic analog sense of style. This is the EV for drivers who like classic German automotive styling.
The only similar attractive normal-looking all-electric car on the market is the Ford Focus Electric.
The E-Golf four-door hatchback looks like a regular Golf, except for aerodynamic wheels, a revised intake and grille, and a pair of C-shaped LED running lights. Carmakers like to give a signature color to their electric offerings—such as Fiat’s burnt orange theme for the 500e. VW goes with royal blue.
The E-Golf is the best handling electric car on sale for less than $40,000. It particularly shines in zero-to-30-mph sprints, especially in city maneuvers and at slightly higher speeds around tight corners. The combination of 199 pound-feet of torque, taut handling, and tight suspension is a winning formula. Motor Trend clocked the zero-to-60 performance of the E-Golf at a respectable 9.1 seconds.
What makes the E-Golf a pleasure to drive is its relatively low and solid stance. Its German-engineered handling makes the LEAF or Ford Focus Electric seem boring and detached. That said, the feel of the E-Golf’s steering wheel is playful and loose—certainly not tuned for sportiness. The keywords are accessible and fun.
The VW EV has three power levels allowing drivers to optimize performance and range. In Normal mode, the E-Golf gives the driver a full 85 kilowatts of power, while the ‘Eco’ mode reduces peak power to 70 kilowatts and reduces the power consumption of the car’s air conditioning system. In “Eco +,” power is further reduced to 55 kW and the air conditioning system turns off. Even in restricted power modes, full power is given when the accelerator is pushed to the floor.
It’s clear that VW is intending to make the E-Golf drive as much as possible like the car’s gas- and diesel-powered siblings. That’s great. However, our biggest grip with the car is the use of an artificial combustion-flutter sound that simulates an engine note rising in volume with acceleration (at speeds below 15 miles per hour). Volkswagen told me that the sounds come from an external pedestrian warning, and was designed to be heard outside the vehicle. However, I heard the fake engine sound loud and clear inside the cabin, when I would have preferred to enjoy EV silence. VW confirmed that the sound cannot be manually shut off.
The 2016 E-Golf, like its predecessor model years, is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 126 city, 105 highway, and 116 combined miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent. According to VW, these numbers make the E-Golf “the most efficient car in its class.” Yet, in the world of EVs, these efficiency numbers take a secondary role to the all-important range number: how far an EV can go on a single charge.
In this respect, the VW E-Golf’s EPA-estimated range is 83 miles—compared to 107 miles provided by the Nissan LEAF.
One innovative driving feature available in the E-Golf is driver-controlled regen levels. Slap the gear shifter to the left—once, twice or three times—to progressively increase the amount of regenerative braking applied, ranging from a no-regeneration (or “coast”) mode to heavy engine braking in B.
Dialing the regen up or down affects how quickly the car slows down without putting your foot on the brake. Slowing down faster—the motor-generator applies a grabbing action—means that more of the braking energy is used to recharge the battery pack. The net result is more range. Three slaps to the left, or dropping it into B, produces the kind of strong regen you experience in a Tesla or BMW electric car—a driving style that seldom requires use of the brake pedal at all.
Unlike those one-pedal cars, which don’t move forward when you lift your foot off the pedals, the E-Golf has a normal amount of “creep,” the low-speed motion experienced in parking lot conditions.
For 2016, there are two trim levels: SE and SEL. The base version of the SE trim does not have DC Quick Charge capability and its Level 2 charger is rated at 3.6 kilowatts, which is slower than the 6.6-plus kW of many of today's EVs. Yet, a DC Quick Charge port and faster 7.2-kW onboard charger can be added as an option on the SE trim. The DC Quick Charge capability and 7.2-kW features come standard on the SEL trim.
For Volkswagen E-Golf models with the 7.2-kilowatt onboard charger, drivers can fully take advantage of 240-volt home chargers supplied with 30-amp service. For all intents and purposes, this will add the same amount of miles per hour of charging as with the LEAF, Focus and most other EVs. Technically, the rate of recharging is about 10 percent faster—but it’s a negligible difference, especially when considering that most charging takes place overnight when drivers are asleep.
We wish VW had put a small light in the charging area, to make it easier to plug in at night. Similarly, the small green pulsating indicator light—showing that the car is successfully taking juice—is perhaps too understated. It’s nice to get a quick visual signal regarding the state-of-charge, which is provided in various ways by other EVs, but not the E-Golf.
In addition to 240-volt charging, the Volkswagen E-Golf offers Quick Charging as a standard feature on the SEL trim. VW is using the so-called “Combined Charging System” or combo-cord favored by German and American automakers—as opposed to the CHAdeMO fast charging port utilized by Japanese vehicles. The network of combo-compatible Quick Chargers is not nearly as wide as CHAdeMO, but this is expected to level over time (as many Quick Charger providers begin to offer two plugs). It’s rare for EV drivers to depend on Quick Charging except in a pinch.
The conventional VW Golf earns kudos for its upscale interior for a non-luxury compact car. The seats are comfy, with the level of support usually reserved for more expensive models. Dashboard gauges and controls are clear and accessible.
Tall drivers will enjoy the ability to slide the front seats way back—giving more front legroom than most other small cars (even if it compromises space for passengers behind the driver).
In terms of cargo, the baggage area in the gas- or diesel-powered Golf does lose about 10 percent of its capacity to make room for EV batteries. The Focus Electric compromises its cargo to a much greater degree.
E-Golf pricing starts at $29,815 including destination, before any federal, state or local incentives. That compares to the $36,415 starting price of the only other e-Golf trim level, the SEL Premium. Considering the advantages of the faster charging, and nicer amenities, most shoppers should opt for the SEL trim. That will set E-Golf's price between the more affordable popular Nissan LEAF, which has a starting price of $29,800, and German luxury EVs—the BMW i3 and Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive—offered at $42,300 and $42,400 respectively.
These figures do not take a $7,500 federal tax credit, or a $2,500 rebate offered in California, into consideration.
In the practical terms of what you are likely to drive off the dealership lot, the Nissan LEAF and VW E-Golf sell at nearly identical prices, that is, when you compare a fully loaded Nissan LEAF to the E-Golf SEL Premium. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, LED lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, rearview camera, keyless access, automatic post-collision braking system, and SiriusXM satellite radio.
The E-Golf is bigger and more robust than the suite of subcompact EVs from Fiat, Chevy, Smart, and Mitsubishi. The VW electric car, while cheaper than EVs from BMW, Mercedes and Tesla, does not fully compete in terms of luxury features, design and innovative technology. That puts the VW E-Golf in the group of all-electric five-seat compacts that includes the Nissan LEAF and Ford Focus Electric.
Compared to LEAF and Focus EV, the E-Golf feels more solid. When windows and doors shut, they do so with confidence—sealing passengers into a comfortable well-built cabin with quality materials, and shutting off road noise. Operation of knobs and controls is direct and intuitive. The quality of the package is step or two above what’s offered by Nissan and Ford with its electric cars.
The remaining distinguishing factor is the level of commitment from the different automakers. Nissan is all-in, with domestic LEAF production and availability in all 50 states. Ford is on the fence in terms of pure electrics, but is indicating support of plug-in hybrids. And Volkswagen, while claiming that it wants the industry’s lead position in terms of electrifying the automobile, has not yet backed that goal with big production and wide distribution of battery-powered plug-in cars.
According to VW, the E-Golf vehicle will be available “only at participating Volkswagen dealers in select states.” California dealerships are most likely to have inventory, but shoppers in these states should check with local dealers to confirm participation: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.