The current range of quick Golfs could justly be labelled 'comprehensive'. And while there might be a Groundhog Day impression forming, VW deserves praise for at least giving buyers choice - it's all too easy these days to bemoan a lack of go-faster options. So as well as a Golf R that oversteers, there's still a manual GTI and a Clubsport - and an even an anniversary edition on the way. Which means that just when it seemed like enthusiasts were being sidelined, VW has delivered perhaps its most competitive range of fast Golfs ever. This GTE even matches the GTI for power now...
In amongst Drift Modes and chassis geo for a quicker 'ring lap, it's easy to forget about the humble plug-in hybrid variant. We certainly have. For the Mk8 the powertrain is familiar - a 1.4-litre turbo petrol paired with an electric motor - but with a worthwhile boost in performance from the Mk7. Not only is 245hp and 295lb ft sufficient for a 6.7-second sprint to 62mph and 140mph, a 50 per cent bigger battery - 13kWh against 9kWh before - means a vastly improved electric range. The claim is 60km, or just over 37 miles, on a full charge. That's more than 30 in the real world, which covers off more journeys that you might think. The battery can be replenished in five hours via a mains electricity supply, or less than four hours if using a 3.6kW charger. The GTE's setup is the same as the one found in the Octavia vRS IV and Leon Cupra.
Our drive with the GTE, in theory, could hardly have better suited what it purports to offer. There was the drudgery of a crawl through London - perfect to show off the electric possibilities - a cruise down the M4 and then a bit of Wales to finish; there is no better rodeo to show off the "extremely direct handling" that's promised.
Never underestimate the sense of calm that comes from navigating city streets on electricity alone. The GTE has more than ample performance to deal with the cut and thrust of busy urban areas, more so than any combustion-engined equivalent could muster. Small gaps become viable, the additional regen of Sport mode means you only really need one pedal, and the lack of any engine noise helps make a typically stressful driving situation much more serene. The battery charge was sufficient for slogging through west London, up the M40 and all the way to Beaconsfield services without the engine chiming in - not once did it feel like more performance, or any intervention from a petrol engine would be needed. Lacking the ID.3's futuristic look could certainly be seen as a benefit for the GTE as well, garnering it absolutely no attention whatsoever.
Unsurprisingly, the GTE was entirely Golf-like on the motorway: quiet, assured, compliant. Some toughness to the low speed ride duly levelled out and the intervention of the engine was almost imperceptible, though it does sound strained when stretched. Performance is more than adequate, even if keeping up on the M40 sometimes requires more of the Golf's reserves than might be expected. Exhausting the electric range and still seeing 370 miles in the tank is nice when there's a long way to go and you want to be there soon. An ID.3 isn't capable of that just yet.
Using a route that avoided the less agreeable parts of the M4, the GTE averaged 50mpg getting to Wales, which isn't to be sniffed at. It's hard to fault in those situations, really - as agreeable as any petrol Golf but more efficient. What a shame, then, that it can't live up the 'sports icon' billing when asked to.
Weight is the real killer. A GTI weighs 1,373kg at the kerb; a GTE weighs 1,549kg by the same measure, or 176kg more. With a driver aboard, it's a Golf in excess of 1,600kg. Which has an impact everywhere: the GTE doesn't accelerate as eagerly, turn as willingly or brake as convincingly as its leaner, bigger-engined cousin. It isn't a deal breaker considered purely as a hybrid VW Golf - a task for which it's ideally suited to - but is a tad disappointing for something with performance car aspirations.
Lacking the VAQ diff of the GTI, the GTE is scrappier when its limits are breached, stumbling into its traction control rather than decisively apportioning power. The six-speed DSG isn't as snappy as the newer seven-speed, an impression compounded by the Golf's odd throttle response as it defaults to electric propulsion first. The brakes aren't as convincing in the other fast Golfs, either, as the GTE has to balance the requirements of regen and regular stopping power.
It's far from bad, of course. Not so long ago, this sort of performance in a fairly ordinary hybrid hatch would have been exceptional, and it's unlikely to unduly frustrate anyone. The perks of a hybrid system shouldn't be underestimated, either, particularly from a company car tax perspective. But as a driver's car, and measured against its siblings, the GTE comes up short, lacking the tenacity and focus that's already marked out this generation of Golf. Quite where the genre goes from here it's hard to know; the best hot hatches tend to be the lighter ones, and a hybrid system will always inevitably add weight. And that's without considering the progress made in electric vehicles - might an ID.3 flagship assume the VW EV hot hatch mantle in time? Probably. Until that point, the GTE remains recommendable as a hybrid and is a worthwhile addition to the Golf line up, particularly with its newfound electric range. But those who want to be entertained by a fast VW are still better served elsewhere - and that doesn't look like changing anytime soon.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 VW GOLF GTE
Engine: 1,395cc, four-cyl turbo, plus AC synchronous motor
Transmission: 6-speed DSG, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245
Torque (lb ft): 295
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top speed: 140mph
Weight: 1,549kg (DIN)
MPG: 246.1 (WLTP)
CO2: 26g/km (WLTP)
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