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2016 Volkswagen Golf GTE First Drive

On Sunday, October 11th, 2015

For the past few years I’ve enjoyed a simple automotive tradition: When planning a European vacation, I request a relatively attainable loaner car that’s unavailable in the States. These slices of can’t-get-it-at-home automotive exotica have tended to be clean diesels, and experiencing them in their native habitat ahead of their US debuts often gives some form of four-wheeled revelation.

2016 Volkswagen Golf GTE

For instance, before the mainstream emergence of clean diesels stateside, I racked up 1,500 miles on a then-brand-new 2008 Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI. The otherwise unassuming sedan enabled me to cannonball from the South of France to Barcelona on a single tank of fuel, while delivering satisfying torque around town and averaging 41 mpg. The following year, I bombed through the Italian Alps in aVolkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI, which eked a claimed 17 percent better fuel economy than its predecessor. Once again, I was in car guy heaven, returning home with nothing but praise for these efficient, entertaining diesels that seemed to defy conventional wisdom.

And then came the Volkswagen scandal, single-handedly besmirching so-called clean diesels and everything they purported to represent. With a European pleasure trip around the corner (and a request for a press car pending with VW), I wondered what would be waiting for me curbside when I touched down at Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola.

Enter The High Performance Hybrid

Volkswagen, quite understandably, didn’t want to arm a journalist with potentially damning commentary about the technology that has already inspired environmental outrage and the ousting of CEO Martin Winterkorn. For the automaker in peril (and the auto writer in waiting), I soon discovered that the ‘clean’ diesel elephant in the room would be supplanted with a vehicle that could single-handedly deflect controversy. My loaner? A still-can’t-get-it-back-home alternative to diesel, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTE plug-in hybrid.

First off, let me admit to some prejudicial bias against the GTE. Maybe it’s my personal views on hybrids, tainted by the eco self-righteousness exuded by their drivers back home, and epitomized by teeming swarms of Prius drivers who couldn’t give a single damn about driving. Or maybe it’s the added weight and complexity of a hybrid drivetrain that runs counter to my petrol-loving soul. Either way, my loaner was more than just a loaner this time around; it was a statement by a company in crisis, an answer to a question I never expected to ask.

Would this – could this – curiously timed hybrid win me over? I piled my travel companions into its Tartan-trimmed interior and merged onto the Autostrada in search of an answer.

What Lies Beneath

The GTE builds upon the Volkswagen Golf underpinnings, packing what is essentially an Audi A3 E-Tron beneath its familiar skin. The functionality of a few of the car’s conventional features accommodate its future-friendly powertrain. Sure, there’s the usual nav screen-based graphical interfaces and an analog EV output/regen meter that resembles a tachometer. But beneath that is a miniscule engine rpm gauge for the 1.4-liter, turbocharged, 148 horsepower TSI engine. The standard-looking Volkswagen badge on the front grille also flips open to reveal a charging receptacle. Running on pure electrons, 3.5 hours of charging from a home outlet can draw 31 miles of EV-only range (that time drops to about two hours if you’re using a 220-volt wall charger). Working in conjunction with the tiny gas engine, the drivetrain is capable of delivering a diesel-like range of up to 584 miles. See what they did there?

In any case, the GTE pulls a total of 201 horsepower and 258 pound-feeet of torque from its gas and electric powertrain, enabling a respectable 0-62 time of 7.6 seconds – a tad behind the GTI’s published 6.5-second figure. For what it’s worth, the liquid cooled, 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery makes up eight percent of the GTE’s 3,360-pound curb weight, which is 275 pounds heavier than the GTI.

On The Road: Mixed Metaphors

My GTE drive started off in electric-only mode, which can power the small hatchback to speeds of up to 81 mph. While quiet and smooth, tackling Italy’s high-speed Autostrada in EV mode with five occupants and trunk full of luggage depleted the battery rather quickly. The system tends to stay in EV mode under hard throttle (which is good). Still, a lead-footed driving style will trigger the tiny tachometer and some good-old fashioned internal combustion assistance under kickdown, which you’re likely to encounter during strategic left lane passes. The 1.4-liter engine joins the propulsion party rather smoothly, thanks in part to a six-speed, dual-clutch transmission that’s tuned specifically for hybrid duty. Electric mode resumes with a fairly seamless transition. When you’re back in EV mode, the paddle shifters can be used to simulate engine braking (which also generates more regenerative, battery charging power). One downside of the hybrid setup is the throttle and braking delicacy required during tight parking maneuvers; it’s easy to misjudge pedal effort and lurch ahead or brake too hard when sliding into a parking spot.

Driving up the hill to our rented villa revealed satisfying torque from the union of gas and electric power, though the GTE also felt hunkered down in the corners due to its loaded up mass. This heavier Golf is a tad less nimble than its all-gas counterpart, especially when carrying a full load. The clincher? Pressing the center console-mounted GTE button creates livelier acceleration, more aggressive regen, and slightly heavier steering. You can toss that 157 mpg figure (according to New European Driving Cycle standards) out the window with the more aggressive GTE mode. But in contrast to the eco purity of electric-only mode, it’s nice to know this Golf can go all-out when you want it to.

It’s a useful, well-made thing, too. When you set aside arguments about performance versus economy, the hybridized Golf remains a triumph of packaging. It offers surprising interior volumetric capacity, good outward visibility, and doors that shut with a feeling of solidity.

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