If It Can Make It Here: The New Volkswagen e-Golf in Manhattan

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 02, 2017

They say that electric cars are just perfect for cities, where range anxiety wouldn’t be much of an issue—but air pollution definitely is. According to a survey from Newcastle University, “Not only could electric vehicles reduce transport-related pollution in our cities, they also produce less carbon dioxide per mile than a combustion engine, even when the pollution associated with electricity generation at power stations is taken into account.”

The e-Golf girding its loins to do battle in midtown Manhattan. (Jim Motavalli photo)

OK, I’m game. And as it turned out, Volkswagen decided to debut the updated 2017 version of its e-Golf in midtown Manhattan, where it has a dealership. They handed us the keys and said go to it, with no minder aboard and no restrictions on where to drive. I could have hopped on the West Side Highway, which is right there, and driven it upstate, but it seemed a better idea to drive it into the heart of the beast, Times Square. That’s about as urban as you get.

The 2017 styling update is subtle, but it's there. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The cars are on 11th Avenue, showing off their minor styling updates—the bumpers, fenders, headlights, seats and grille have been “modernized,” but the changes are subtle. More to the point, the range has jumped to 125 miles, a 50-percent increase, and power is up, too—from 115 to 134 horsepower (via a 100-kilowatt motor). Zero to 60 now takes 9.6 seconds, and it takes off like a bat out of hell.

Imagine these 16-inch alloy wheels scraped and dinged after hardship duty in New York City. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Or, it would if we were anywhere but midtown Manhattan, which is a congested mess on a weekday morning. It can take 10 minutes to go one block, and you’re not exactly taking the performance to the limit. I can verify that electric cars are very quiet when sitting doing nothing.

I decided to drive to my favorite Japanese-run record store on 45th Street. It took me about half an hour, but I arrived, only to discover that it was absolutely impossible to park there. It’s not that the spaces were filled—there weren’t any spaces, unless I could convince a cop that the e-Golf was a commercial vehicle—or paid $30 to a parking chain for the privilege of visiting a record store. Oh well. “No Standing 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” the red signs said. Hmmm, Radio City Music Hall is having Jean-Michel Jarre. I haven't heard that name in a while.

The taxis are vicious in midtown, and don't even think of parking near Radio City Music Hall. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Manhattan is one big construction zone, and I got stuck in jams at several of them. There’s usually a guy holding up a “Stop” sign. It says “Slow” on the other side, but he’s not showing you that one. When I did get the e-Golf moving, I shifted D3/B, which really kicks in the regen brakes, and enables one-pedal driving—perfect for Manhattan. There are also buttons for Normal, Eco and Eco+ driving modes. Since I wasn’t worried about range, I kept it in Normal, but the other settings are useful for longer trips.

Choose D3/B on the shifter and get awesome regenerative braking that makes the accelerator the only useful pedal. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Taxis are everywhere, and they’re really aggressive. Both the e-Golf and I had several near-death experiences. Does it help that the taxis are Priuses and hybrid Camrys? Not a bit. The drivers are not the Birkenstock and Sierra Club membership type.

The e-Golf seat heaters were little furnaces. The satellite radio was tuned to Real Jazz, but the reception in the city’s canyons was really spotty. One moment I was listening to Joe Henderson wailing on “Blue Bossa,” the next, silence. I was sad to notice that the homeless have a big presence in Manhattan these days.

Homeless in midtown Manhattan, amid the city glitz. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Given the city’s take-no-prisoners attitude, the e-Golf needs to be tough. If it can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere. After a few months in Manhattan, it would have numerous bumper dings, a “No Radio” sign and a sooty dullness to its once-shiny paint. But I’d like to think it would still be performing flawlessly.

The Bloomberg administration (before the current mayor, Bill de Blasio) was especially supportive of electric cars in its groundbreaking PlaNYC. The plan was to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation 44 percent by 2030. “There is a potentially large group of early adopters willing to change behavior to accommodate electric vehicles,” the city said.

New York is the home of Real Jazz, though the high-rise canyons block the reception. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The irony, though, is that charging in many cities, and especially New York, is really challenging. There’s virtually no on-street charging, only in parking garages and lots. Some apartment buildings are getting charging, but it’s a slow slog. The big push Bloomberg imagined probably won’t happen until public (and private) charging is more available.

Cruising around aimlessly, with no place to stop where I wouldn’t get a ticket, I used up about 20 miles of the e-Golf’s range. It’s a very attractive electric car, and the friends I know with earlier examples swear by them. I would weigh this with the new Hyundai Ioniq, which has about the same range.

Other relevant e-Golf facts: The 7.2-kilowatt on-board charger is now standard on all versions, and it can fully recharge the 35.8-kilowatt-hour battery in less than six hours at 240 volts. DC fast charging (an 80-percent charge in an hour) is optional on the base SE car, standard on the loaded Limited Edition and Premium. VW uses the Combined Charging System (CCS), not the Japanese-favored CHAdeMO.

Should this taco stand become a road-going Microbus again? (Jim Motavalli photo)

I arrived back at the dealership, and VW had arranged lunch for us in a Microbus converted to a taco stand. Given the rapidly escalating prices paid for these classic minivans (I saw $20,000 for a total wreck recently), this one should perhaps get restored and auctioned off.



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