Good: subtle style, useful electric range, flat-out performance, high quality
Not so good: alludes to GTI-like ability, which it has not
Two years ago, I brought a Volkswagen Golf GTE along to meet up with a CompleteCar.ie reader that adores his Golf GTI (read the full feature here). The idea was to put the two cars back-to-back and get the opinion of someone that shells out his own money on such things. The conclusion was clear cut: the Golf GTE is a lovely car in its own right, and certainly one of the more engaging PHEV hatchbacks on the market, but it's not a patch on the GTI itself and is unlikely to appeal to hot hatch buyers just because of its pure electric running capability and its ostensibly low running costs.
A lot happens in two years. Back in 2016 we would have wholeheartedly recommended the Golf GTD over the similarly priced Golf GTE. The GTD is more engaging when you push on and yet also more economical everywhere other than in an urban environment. As we start into 2018, the argument for diesel doesn't look quite so solid. And actually, it's a tad unfair, as modern diesels are very clean, but we feel there's a huge amount of momentum in the industry against them in general, so buyers will choose to change before any potential penalising legislation comes into force. With more and more buyers considering petrol and hybrid power, the Golf GTE has never been more relevant.
As part of the Golf VII update of last year, the Golf GTE underwent a series of useful updates to keep it fresh without altering its core mechanicals or remit. Full LED headlights and taillamps are the most obvious change. The highly distinctive C-shaped LED daytime running lights up front are retained, while the rear lights get a 'dynamic' LED indicator effect that always catches the eye. The GTE gets unique bumpers front and rear, as before, with tweaks to make it look more like the Golf GTI up front, with a blue highlight to signify electrification and a smattering of GTE badges. The overall sporty effect is in part thanks to standard 18-inch 'Sevilla' alloy wheels. While it isn't quite as hunkered down as the GTI, it is nonetheless considerably sportier looking than any other PHEV hatch on the market we can think of.
The same is true of the interior, though the GTE's is a match for any of its stablemates' thanks to a generous level of standard equipment and very high quality levels. A flat-bottomed steering wheel sets the sporty tone, which is enhanced by figure-hugging sports seats upholstered in a GTE-specific take on the Volkswagen 'Clark' cloth pattern. Blue ambient lighting and stitching make it clear you're in the GTE, as do the illuminated scuff plates. The eight-inch 'Composition Media' touchscreen system is standard, but satnav is extra, which is a shame, as one of the updated GTE's party tricks is the ability to alter its hybrid system based on GPS positioning and map data. Nonetheless, the lovely Active Info Display (digital rendering of the instruments with five different driver-selectable view modes) is standard, distancing the GTE from run-of-the-mill Golfs.
It's a little surprising that engine start-stop isn't keyless in this model as standard, too, as turning a key in the ignition feels old-school given the advanced powertrain. Do that and, most of the time, a little 'bong' is the only sound, as the GTE starts off in purely electric power. In ideal conditions, it can apparently travel for up to 50 kilometres using battery power only and the driver can specify if he wants purely electric propulsion via a mode button to the left of the DSG automatic shifter. The other modes are 'Hybrid' (to allow the system to juggle the engine and electric motor), Battery Charge (forces the engine to run and actively charge up the battery as you drive - not the most efficient thing to do, given you can plug the GTE into an external power source to do this when at a standstill) and 'GTE', where the electric motor and 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine work in conjunction to deliver the fastest responses and highest performance.
And there's no arguing with the shove on offer, at all. A 0-100km/h time of 7.6 seconds doesn't sound amazing, but the GTE positively flies in the mid-range, the electric motor giving it an effortless boost of acceleration. It doesn't feel too shabby off the line in purely electric mode, either, thanks to the motor's torque. Nonetheless, even in GTE mode it all sounds a bit too quiet and refined. There's barely any engine noise allowed through to the cabin and the six-speed automatic transmission is seamless in operation. Some will love that, and it undoubtedly enhances the sense of high quality, but it is at odds with the sporting image projected.
Nonetheless, and despite carrying over 200kg more weight than the Golf GTI, the GTE is very competent in the corners. It finds loads of mechanical grip, even on damp winter roads, and you can really lean on the tyres into and through a bend. There's even a modicum of communication back through the steering system, though you learn its limits for the most part rather than sense where they are, and it won't willingly move around as much under you as the GTI will. Still, it remains sportier to drive than any other hybrid hatchback on the market.
All this comes at a price, naturally, though the on-the-road cost of about €40,000 after the rebate and grant is on the same level as other hybrids of similar size. It's also about the same price as the Golf GTD. It doesn't take a genius to work out which of the two cars will be still relevant in two years' time, does it?