It’s a Golf that runs on electricity
Day one: The electro Golf arrives at my office on a trailer. It looks like a Golf. Although it does feature some of what excellent car sketchist Peter Stevens recently identified as the clichés of electric car design, in this case blue trim and ‘modernist’ wheels. Also, it’s white. The battery turns out to be only half full of electricity so I plug it into a socket in the car park and spend the rest of the afternoon worrying that for some deranged reason I’ve wired it up wrong and instead of charging the car to get me home, the building is sucking all the electricity out of it. Fortunately, this does not happen. To drive, the e-Golf feels quite like a Golf. There’s a faint sense of some extra weight low down which you feel through the ride and the blunted handling, but it takes off nicely with that instant maxi-torque thing you get from electric power. Mostly it just gets on with being a car. This is in contrast to, say, the Nissan Leaf or the BMW i3, both of which are designed to feel a bit unusual. This is the opposite. It’s a very normal car that just happens to run on electricity.
Day two: It’s frosty this morning and all the cars on my street are frozen over. This is a dilemma for the electric car driver. I don’t have any de-icer at home but I don’t want to waste precious electricalness using the blower to clear the windows. The dilemma is solved on this occasion by a low winter sun which burns off the frost before I need to go anywhere. Phew. This means I can set off using the heater for 10 minutes then switch it off, instantly adding 20 miles or so to the range-o-meter.
Day three: There’s a phone app that works with the e-Golf. You can use it to turn on the heater in advance, the idea being that you warm up the car while it’s plugged in so you don’t deplete the battery on pesky things like not being cold. Turns out you can tell it to run the heater even when the car isn’t hooked up to the mains. I get up this morning and notice it’s frosty outside so I set the heater running as I go out to walk the dog. By the time I get back, the Golf is de-iced. Plus, the inside is warm, if not toasty hot, and I can set off without using the heater. This is what you do with an electric car. You spend more time concentrating on what functions you’re using than you would in a normal car and then fretting that they’re guzzling all your power. Someone told me recently that they met a Leaf owner whose car was full of damp cloths. They were used to clear the windows rather than fire up the de-mister. Clearly that’s the sort of choices enthusiastic electroheads make. And because the Nissan is a bit quirky looking and car of the futurish, I suspect it attracts people who are really interested in new tech and prepared to adapt to it in this way. The e-Golf is just a Golf. As such, people might buy it assuming they can use it just like a normal Golf. Which you can. But if you want it to go for as far as it says in the brochure, you’d better carry some damp cloths.
Day four: We’re going to see some friends out of town. They’re only about 20 miles away but the trip involves using a bit of motorway and, from experience, motorway driving always drains the electronical tank on cars like these. We trundle up the M1 at 50. It feels odd. You’re tense from being harried by lorries. And tense from watching the rangimeter dropping. ‘I don’t like this car,’ says my wife. ‘It makes me feel weird.’ Maybe it’s the lack of noise. Except, there is noise. It’s just different. Touch the brakes and you can hear the pads pressing against the discs. Turn into a corner and the white noise from the tyres changes in tone. It is a bit unusual. We make it the 20 miles home again. But spent the trip feeling tense. Maybe if you owned the car you’d get used to it and know full well what distances you could cover. At the moment, I find it strangely stressful.
Day five: Last night I ran the charging cable across the pavement and plugged the e-Golf in at home for a few hours. It wasn’t enough to brim it full of electricitys. Problem is, we’re used to phones and iPads that need a couple of hours of charging before they can reasonably serve their purpose for a decent amount of time. You have to remember that it requires a shitload more electricity to move a car around and therefore a shit load more charging from a normal socket.
Day six: I’m trying not to be obsessed with the range readout in the Golf but it’s hard not to. Putting it into eco mode seems to help. There’s also an eco plus mode that basically takes all the torque and hides it away so you can’t use it. This is no fun. The mild strangulation of eco is okay for town driving. Also in the interests of range boosting, I’ve got into the habit of using the heated seats for warmth and not the heater. I don’t think it’s a very good heater anyway. Nor does the ventilation system seem to move air around like it would in a normal car. I know this because in the interests of consumer journalism, and also because I’d been eating a lot of raisins, I did a substantial fart on the way home this evening and it seemed to linger in the car for an abnormally long amount of time.
Day seven: I’ve spent most of this week, and most of this test, thinking about charging and then preserving electricity rather than the car itself. Which is odd, because you wouldn’t review a petrol car by mostly talking about filling it up. But this is what electric cars do to you. You become disproportionately concerned with the acquisition and use of the fuel. If you have a charger on your drive and you do lots of short journeys this wouldn’t be such a concern, but you’d be giving up the flexibility of a car that burned flammable liquid and therefore allowed you to drive to Aberdeen at a moment’s notice. One day a proper fast charger network and battery hot swapping will solve this issue. But today, it still exists. The other problem here is that, in the interests of maintaining as much charge for as long as possible, you have to compromise on some basic functions of a car such as not using the heater and not demisting the screen, and you learn to start looking ahead as much as you can to minimise use of the throttle and maximise milking the regen braking. Basically, you start voluntarily driving like it’s the 1950s when everyone was cold and couldn’t see where they were going. This is to be expected from what is, in essence, very early generation technology. As an example of the electric car of 2014 the e-Golf is very good. But a petrol or diesel powered Golf is a better and cheaper choice for most people. To choose the electro version you’d have to lead a life that very specifically played to the its strengths. One where you didn’t go far on motorways, didn’t mind being cold, and didn’t need to fart in it.
The car talked about here is a Volkswagen e-Golf. It has a 114 horsepower, 199 lb ft electric motor and a single speed gearbox. VW says it can go from 0-62 in 10.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 87mph. It costs £26,145 including the £5000 grant the government gives on electric cars at the moment.