I’ve travelled a long way to meet Volkswagen’s prototype electric car, and at first blush it seems my journey has been in vain – because VW has brought along the wrong car. As the white Golf hatchback rolls across the carpark towards me I can’t help noticing the distinct rhythmic thrum of a V6 petrol engine.
But the mistake is mine, of course. The car is plastered in Blue-e-Motion stickers and the noise is a fake – a postmodern pedestrian warning. The simulated sound even varies in pitch as the car speeds up, to complete the illusion, up until 22mph when it falls silent.
I can’t hear the virtual burble from inside without first dropping a window, so the electric Golf remains as silent, smooth, unruffled and refined as you might imagine a Volkswagen would be, rolling along without an engine.
This car isn’t a finished product, so elements will certainly change before a production version appears in 2014. Most noticeably, the bodyshell will be different, because by then the current sixth generation hatch will have been replaced by the MkVII.
Apparently the upcoming new monocoque has been born with battery power in mind, so the layout of components may vary from today’s work in progress. For now, the 26.5kWh air-cooled lithium-ion battery is split into three pieces – a long, thin section filling the centre tunnel, plus two broader pieces sitting under the rear bench and across the forward section of the boot floor. Altogether, they create a sort of fat-topped T shape. About 110 litres of boot space has been sacrificed to the cause, leaving about 240 litres for luggage.
All of the rest of the electrical gear – motor, charger, power electronics and cooling – have been shovelled under the bonnet, tightly packed alongside more prosaic items like aircon, power steering and brakes.
At present the electric Golf boasts a choice of charging point – there’s a socket lurking behind the VW badge up front, plus another on the car’s rear hip, under a conventional filler flap.
A selection of sockets seems like a good idea to me, given the unpredictable layout of charging posts with respect to parking bays. But chatting to one of VW’s engineers I learn that the finished car will probably have just a single inlet (for cost reasons, no doubt) and that the nose is the favoured location. There have been problems with ice during cold-weather testing, though, so there’s more work to be done.
Starting the Blue-e-Motion is a wholly conventional affair – foot on the brake and turn the ignition key, until the instruments swing into life and tell you that the car is ready. Then slot the auto-style transmission lever into D, handbrake off, and we roll backwards.
It turns out there’s neither hill-hold nor forward creep baked into the current car. But with a dab of throttle we get away in the right direction, smoothly and cleanly.
Unsurprisingly, the Golf Blue-e-Motion reminds me of the Nissan Leaf. The two are broadly similar in conception, probably weigh a similar amount, and can call on roughly the same power – the Leaf’s motor is rated at 80kW (107bhp), the Golf’s at 85kW (114bhp) – and both will zip to 62mph in about 12 seconds. The Golf has more talkative steering than the Leaf (which isn’t difficult) plus, due to differences in battery packaging, a lower seating position, making the VW much more involving to drive.
There’s also more for the driver to do in the Golf. Volkswagen has come up with a roster of different profiles for energy recuperation – an electric car’s ability to feed energy back to the battery when slowing down, by running the motor as a generator. The Blue-e-Motion boasts five different modes, which feel like five different levels of gentle braking as you lift off the throttle.
The least pronounced regenerative braking effect – which actually feels like no braking at all, a sort of gliding mode – is the default, accessed by simply leaving the car in D. The strongest regeneration is gained by pulling the big lever back into B, which is a braking mode suitable for descending steep hills. Simply coming off the throttle in this mode will light up the brake lamps, to avoid unwanted rear-end attention.
Between the two are three additional profiles, accessed with the lever in D. A pair of paddles affixed to the steering wheel allow the driver to step up and down through all four of the D profiles, from a little braking to a lot.
It’s complex, but once you attune to the differences you can set the car up just how you like it, for the road conditions of the moment. As an innovation, I like it a lot.
In common with the Leaf, VW employs the centre-console screen to keep the driver informed about energy use and the state of charge, while the Golf does without Nissan’s digital dashboard, instead providing a pair of conventional analogue dials adapted to provide an economy meter, range prediction and battery gauge as well as road speed.
It’s too early for VW to say much about likely pricing for the Golf Blue-e-Motion, although spokespeople did admit it will likely pitch in the same ballpark as the Leaf. No doubt we will get a big clue before the electric Golf arrives, when Volkswagen starts to market a different car as its first production EV. The VW Up Blue-e-Motion, also known as the e-Up, is expected to arrive in 2013.
We don’t yet know if VW will follow Renault in offering a battery lease to lower initial entry price, or do as Nissan does and keep ongoing costs to a minimum beyond a higher purchase hurdle.
Or, if the marketers are as inventive as the engineers with their paddle-shift braking, maybe VW will come up with a sales model nobody else has yet considered.