Berlin, Germany -- Even before we drove it, the Volkswagen e-Golf, which is based on the seventh-generation of the Golf family, felt so familiar that Big Bird could have been under the hood and we would have liked it. (Feathering the throttle would have been touchy, though.) Instead of a beak and plumage, we got a 12,000-rpm electric motor. When it goes on sale in late October, the 2015 e-Golf will become the first battery-electric car Volkswagen has offered in the United States. As a Golf, it is highly advanced and thoroughly refined; it just happens to be electric.
Volkswagen chose Tempelhof airport in Berlin for the introduction. Waves of dignitaries, dealers, and drudges like us sampled not only the e-Golf but also the Golf GTE, a plug-in hybrid not yet confirmed for sale in the United States. Even Berlin's general public was invited out to try electric mobility, Wolfsburg style. For our part, starting from the site of the airlift that sustained the city through the eleven-month blockade of 1948 and 1949, we drove a 26-kilometer (16-mile) loop over major streets, passing a remnant of the old Wall along the way and reflecting with admiration on our forebears' defiance of Soviet totalitarianism.
Whereas C-54 Skymasters had substantially outperformed tail-dragging C-47s in the airlift, the e-Golf performs like every other battery-electric we've driven. The silent delivery of power, the hiss of tires, and their occasional thumping over a bump are the car's signatures. Neither dramatic nor thrilling -- VW quotes 10.4 seconds to 62 mph and a limited top speed of 87 mph -- the experience is nonetheless satisfying, especially in Germany, where 23 percent of electric power comes from renewable sources, and in Berlin, where there is nary a pothole. With 115 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque, electric propulsion delivers a substantial feeling, like a breakfast smoothie fortified by a sweet potato.
Those bystanders gathered at the Wall's graffiti-covered remnant would need schooling to know the e-Golf is different than its gas- or diesel-powered counterparts, but there are clues. The bodywork is more aerodynamic, giving a substantial edge (a 0.28 drag coefficient, versus 0.30) over the basic model. Unique windmill-style wheels, four badges on the body, blue accents, and chevron-like front indicator lamps add to the distinction. (This is the first VW with all-LED lighting.) Azure ambient illumination glowed at our elbows as we passed through the long Tiergarten tunnel, and aquamarine stitching bound the leather covering to the steering wheel.
Between the instrument display's large dials, an indicator tells the selected driving mode: Normal, Eco, or Eco+. The central display screen presents animations showing battery draw and regeneration status. Moving the e-Golf's lever for the new single-speed transmission to the "B" setting engages the most aggressive of four energy regeneration profiles. It challenged our ability to stop smoothly but nearly enabled one-pedal driving.
Rather than a lap around Berlin, we could have traveled between 80 and 118 miles on the charge. The 264-cell lithium-ion battery, which is assembled into 27 modules weighing 700 pounds, is good for 24.2 kWh. It recharges in thirteen hours, although VW offers a wall box that shortens replenishment time to eight hours. A DC fast charger will open the gates to 80 percent capacity in about 30 minutes. Battery temperature and function are monitored and regulated for maximum safety and output.
With dynamic performance being nothing to brag about, the e-Golf claims more back-seat and cargo room than the Nissan Leaf. (The latter advantage owes something to the VW's lack of a spare tire.) A best-in-class ownership experience is also promised. Where the e-Golf shines brightest, though, is in the Wolfsburg factory that will turn out 850,000 cars in 2014. The Golf's modular chassis architecture, which will spread to other VW models, permits the consecutive assembly of climate-change-denying Golfs fitted with combustion engines and eco-models riding along the line on yoga mats while using an app to chart the melting of glaciers.
"Whatever the customer needs, we can build," Heinz-Jakob Neusser, Volkswagen Group's powertrain development chief, said in a press conference.
Besides the e-Golf, Wolfsburg can build the GTE. The plug-in hybrid is three cars in one. We drove it on a short loop, first staying in electric mode and creeping smugly through traffic. Accelerating onto a boulevard, we received assistance from the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine known and loved from the Jetta Hybrid, and the GTE romped through Berlin. Returning to the decommissioned airfield, we did a couple of acceleration runs, finding nothing to dispute the contention of GTI-like performance from the hybrid.
The Golf celebrates its fortieth birthday on March 29. More than 30 million examples have been produced. When it comes to America and goes on sale at an as yet undetermined price, the 2015 e-Golf will represent a factory once written off as uncompetitive and a company in the midst of transformation, determined to reduce energy use and material waste in its plants, to use lightweight, hot-formed steel wherever possible, and to scrape away every gram of excess metal from engine components for better efficiency. Whether the e-Golf becomes a Volks populi is beside the point: VW believes its serious intent is worth squawking about.
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