For several years, Volkswagen has been watching the race to develop viable electric cars from the sidelines.
But this fall, the German automaker will bring its first all-electric vehicle to the U.S., a battery-powered version of the venerable Golf, the hatchback that has sold more than 30 million copies globally over six generations.
Dubbed the e-Golf, this model uses the same platform and body as gas- and diesel-powered Golfs, which have all been redesigned for the 2015 model year.
The electric effort is overdue. Nearly every other U.S. automaker (Honda, Toyota, GM, Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz) offers a zero-emission vehicle in California. This is to meet a mandate by the California Air Resources Board requiring that each brand either sell such a vehicle or buy credits from automakers that do.
Automakers typically lose money on electric cars, despite generous state and federal subsidies to buyers. But it's the price of entry to the nation's largest auto market — and key to building brand awareness and engineering prowess amid growing consumer demand for clean, efficient cars.
The late arrival doesn't bother VW.
"We'd rather do it right the first time," said Lars Menge, general manager of product strategy for VW of America.
Many automakers quickly churned out electric cars with subpar powertrains or build quality, he said.
"We came up with a much better car, so now all others have to stretch to follow us," Menge added.
That's a bold claim, considering the strengths of competitors such as the Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e and Honda Fit EV. But a day darting around San Francisco shows that VW's first electric vehicle lives up to the big talk.
Though its technology and driving range break no new ground, the 2015 e-Golf has the efficiency and smooth driving habits that appeal to electric-car fans. And it comes in a classic design, packed with useful features needed to lure buyers who have yet to consider a plug-in car.
The new Golf platform also underpins a wide range of small cars across Volkswagen Group's global brands, including VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda.
Rather than retrofit the outgoing platform for an electric vehicle, VW wanted to wait until it could use this setup — dubbed MQB — since it was designed with an all-electric option in mind. This was another reason for VW's late arrival.
The e-Golf gives up no interior space for people or cargo because the 700-pound lithium-ion battery pack is built into the floor and the tunnel between the passengers.
Weighing only 60 pounds more than the gas version, the e-Golf has the same nimble handling on the road, just without any engine noise or vibration.
An electric motor pumps out 115 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, with this silent power coming on smooth and strong from a dead stop. Though it doesn't have the gee-whiz kick of the Fiat 500e, the e-Golf is quick enough. VW said it will do a zero-to-60 mph run in about 10 seconds.
For those keeping score, the e-Golf has more power and less weight than the Nissan Leaf, its chief competitor. And the Golf probably will match the Leaf's efficiency.
Official EPA range figures won't be in until September. For now, VW estimates 70 to 90 miles of "real world range" on a full charge and a 115-mile maximum. That's on par with the Leaf's 84-mile EPA-estimated range.
VW hasn't yet announced pricing for the e-Golf, but a loaded version with leather seats and navigation probably will sell for around $35,000, before state and federal tax incentives that could knock off as much as $10,000. If that seems close to what a loaded Nissan Leaf sells for, that's no accident.
All e-Golf models will come with a standard roadside assistance program. This service will pick up any e-Golf that has run out of juice within 100 miles of home and take it to the nearest charging station. Drivers will also have the option of a free taxi ride to their home or office, and they can use this service as many times as they like.
The e-Golf will recharge a completely dead battery in less than four hours using a 240-volt outlet or in 20 hours with a 110v/120v plug.
Three driving modes regulate the car's power. The e-Golf starts up in Normal mode, while Eco and Eco+ progressively limit the car's horsepower, torque and air conditioning for the sake of added range.
Drivers can also use the gear shift lever to toggle between four levels of regenerative braking (none, and levels 1 to 3). This is a nice touch that enables drivers to choose how much they want the car to automatically slow down when they take their foot off the gas. It should also go a long way in making EV rookies feel comfortable with the all-electric experience.
Crucially, the VW does all this without the polarizing, bug-eyed styling of the Leaf. The e-Golf looks no different than the rest of the 2015 Golf family, inside and out, conceding none of the car's handsome pragmatism. The lines are still sharp, the creases purposeful. Unlike other Golfs, this one comes only with four doors.
The only cues that the car runs on batteries are daytime LED lights, blue highlighting on the VW logo, tiny e-Golf badges and unique alloy wheels. Inside, simple analog gauges in the instrument panel flank a digital trip computer. The touchscreen navigation system also has a readout that shows the range that drivers can add by cutting systems such as the air conditioning or putting the car into a more efficient regenerative braking mode.
For its initial launch in November, the e-Golf will be available only in California, Oregon, New York, Maryland, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., but VW says that list will expand later in the car's life span.
With German build quality and design, and a compelling price tag, the e-Golf has enough going for it to tip the scales in its favor over the Leaf. But remember that the current Leaf has been around since 2011. That it would take another automaker three years just to duplicate Nissan's recipe speaks to how far ahead of the game the Leaf was when it came out.
But for VW fans, and anyone still on the fence about an EV, the 2015 e-Golf is worth the wait.