So there I was alone in the car one sunny afternoon, stuck on a narrow two-lane road behind a school bus. Poor timing on my part. Like a motorized, big yellow cigar, the thing stopped every 200 yards to drop off a neighborhood kid, then, groaned, wheezed and shuddered ahead in a cloud of acrid, black smoke. Unable to pass, I was instead slowly getting gassed. But the interminable series of foggy interludes did give me occasion to reflect on this peculiar moment in automotive history.
We’ve come to understand the benefits of modern diesel engines –they’re more efficient than their gasoline counterparts, meaning they emit less C02, which is better from a greenhouse gas perspective. Yet there are still issues with their emissions of particulate material, little specks of sulfur and soot that even in the much lower concentrations of today’s “clean” diesel still wreak havoc when they get trapped in lungs, as they inevitably will. Clean diesel is better than filthy diesel, but it’s not the final solution. In any event, thanks to a discouraging lack of regulatory zeal in Washington, the school buses many of our kids spend good portions of their lives riding around in aren’t even clean diesels; rather, they’re as dirty and smelly as they ever were. We’re probably not doing the kids riding in them any favors. And we’re definitely not helping anyone sitting behind them.
Yet what I want to tell you is, even as this great diesel pong was precipitously elevating my queasiness quotient, I was looking on the bright side of things and feeling cheerful. You see, I was behind the bus ensconced in a brand-new e-Golf, the all-electric version of the newly launched seventh-generation of Volkswagen’s signature hatchback, the model which has marked the spiritual center of the German company’s range (and, relatedly, its profitability) since the mid-1970s. Volkswagen of America’s press office has kindly deigned to loan me a Pacific blue e-Golf, with SEL Premium trim, just off the boat from Germany (non-electric Golfs are built in Mexico) for a six-month test. With 550 miles on its odometer, it has quickly grown on me.
For one thing, its emissions are nil. If you have to sit in traffic behind something, the e-Golf would be, along with a growing wave of decent, reasonably affordable, pure electric cars (Ford Focus EV, Fiat 500e, Chevy Spark EV, Kia Soul EV and Nissan Leaf), the place to be.
Now critics of electric cars are forever pointing out, typically with undisguised I-told-you-so glee, that no matter what there will be emissions somewhere directly related to generating the juice that charges your electric car’s batteries. Which is true, as far as it goes. But it’s worth pointing out that overall emissions are still reduced dramatically when you’ve traveling battery-powered. Thus, according to the EPA’s complex calculation, this e-Golf posts the equivalent of 116 mpg, which is certainly an improvement over even the most carefully driven gasoline-powered Golf, which has had a very good day if it nears 35 mpg, or a diesel, which might crack 45 mpg.
Nor should we forget that whatever the naysayers might think, moving emissions to a remote location that’s not directly in another motorist’s face is a signal good and positive courtesy in its own right. To test this proposition, ask yourself: would I, riding on an airplane, like to be sitting next to the guy who’s cutting mega-farts or at the other end of the cabin? I rest my case.
So there’s one reason to like the electric Golf. Never having to go to the gas station is another, an intergenerational thrill that no one can argue against. But there are plenty more explanations for why this thing tickles my fancy, many of them related to the fact that all Golfs are unusually reasonable ways to transport people and their belongings, big enough to feel comfortable and substantial, yet small enough to park and feel nimble. Like its conventional brethren the e-Golf rides very well. The electric conversion adds 368 lbs. to the standard car’s weight, with a substantial 688-lb., 264-cell, 22.2-kWh, lithium-ion battery coming in for most of the blame. The resulting 3,391 lb. curb weight is nothing to write home to mother about. Fortunately, however, the battery pack snatches no room from occupants, also a major gain for the battery-powered classes. Unless they’re very observant, passengers won’t even notice that they are in an electric car, at least not until it dawns on them that this Golf is extraordinarily quiet.
They will also notice that they’re in an electric car should the operator ever ignore dashboard warning and try to drive too far, when the car and all its occupants whoosh to a silent halt on the shoulder, having exhausted the e-Golf’s batteries and exceeded its range. That range might be 126 miles in city driving, according to VW, though on the highway it might be more like 75 miles. To get the most mileage, you’ll want to remember to drive like a grandmother, choose one of two Eco mode settings, which limit power and speed, and select the most aggressive of four available regenerative braking programs to capture more or less of the energy created by braking or decelerating and turning it back into battery charge. However when the regenerative function is set at its slightest, the e-Golf is at its most normal. Where many electric cars (and hybrids) feel like you’ve slammed on the brakes each time you let off the accelerator pedal, the e-Golf, on its lightest regen setting, feels delightfully just like any other car.
And between charges it is. It’s quick enough to keep up with traffic (0-60 in a quoted 10.4 seconds, but faster to 30mph, according to VW, than a Golf GTi) and fun enough, with alert steering and a lively chassis, to keep things interesting. The e-Golf’s four-door hatchback configuration – the most practical package for an automobile known to man – is a plus, with 93.9 cubic feet of room, and outwardly, only the keenest train spotter types will be able to identify this Golf’s e-ness; different wheels and LED headlights, a different set of gauges, some tiny badges and subtly revised trim. Such modesty may, sadly, be a disincentive to some potential buyers – it’s been documented that the Prius’ weird looks, which loudly telegraph the green within, are a real selling point. The e-Golf is for the more low-key tree-hugger, the more understated early adopter and global warming critic.
Charging it isn’t especially quick – up to 12 hours if you’re using a regular 110v-outlet. But with the optional $550 240V set up which VW is going to hook up in my garage– ordinarily another $300 to $1,000 to install, they say – four hour charges are mine for the asking. Find one of 18,000 special ChargePoint fast-charging stations that some states and municipalities have sprung for and 80 percent of full charge is available in 30 minutes. Locating such a place near my suburban abode or my usual NYC haunts – I commute in and out of the city, often– may be a game changer --- and there’s an app for it. Until then, I’m happy charging while I sleep. Just remember that you must hit the unlock button on the key fob a couple of times to get the charger plug out of the car. Even if it's sitting in your garage and you didn't lock it when you drove in and plugged in the cord, the plug won’t come out without the fob action. I found this out the hard way, stranded after our car’s first charge.
Range is the electric car’s traditional car bug-a-boo and the e-Golf is no different than the others in this regard-- it makes an ideal commuter, around-town or second car, but long road trips have to be very carefully planned or better yet, foregone. Happily, I can make good use of it most days of the week, even with its finite range.
The “loaded” SEL’s $35,445 price, (from which you may subtract federal and state tax credits totaling around $7,500 and add $820 destination and delivery) puts the e-Golf squarely in the middle of today’s electric car field. It’s no Tesla Model S, mind you – with its two-hundred and optional three-hundred mile ranges– but the electric Vee-Dub costs a fraction of Elon Musk’s electric “It” car, the machine which has captured the imaginations of well-heeled green types from Sacramento to Shenzen. Some of them might even want to check out the e-Golf.
Because putting the Tesla and its lifetime-of-summer-vacations price tag aside, I’m thinking the e-Golf is the best electric car I’ve ever driven. It could be the diesel fumes speaking right now, but six months will tell all.
And now, a song about electric cars.