No one can deny that Volkswagen is home to some of the world's most talented engineers. Unfortunately, it was an engineering decision that saw the company spend much of 2015 at the intersection of politics, consumer rights and legal shenanigans, a thicket it hasn't managed to find its way out of just yet. There will be implications, not least on the company’s future product road map. Some proposed niche models and technologies might fall by the wayside as VW tightens its focus on what it does best.
One thing is for sure; there will still be a Volkswagen Golf. Over 40 years, the Golf has evolved from the quintessential small family car into the ultimate automotive platform. Its underpinnings are spread throughout the VW group (its ‘MQB’ platform is used by 12 different models across four brands), but it is the Golf that reigns supreme. Seven generations of Golf have allowed Volkswagen to hone and refine its mainstay model, its range book-ended by basic economy models and the much-loved GTI.
A few years ago, the company introduced an even faster Golf, the ‘R’. We sampled the current ‘R’ in estate form – the biggest a Golf has ever got – and remain thoroughly impressed by the refinement and dynamics packed into this compact machine. For decades the Golf has been sold as a sort of ‘everyman’s express’, a car so simple and baggage-free that it is the default choice of the buyer who cares about quality but not about image. Even the GTI, originally introduced in 1975, is still as classless as ever. The ‘R’ goes against type, barking and snarling like the true speed machine it is. Even so, it still looks subtle, with VW’s current clean, angular design language working especially well to sharpen up the edges.
An even more efficient addition to the range is the GTE, a performance hybrid that splices the best bits of the E-Golf with its speedy sibling. The GTE is remarkable for the amount of technology crammed into such a small space, and for the total lack of compromise that results. If anything, the GTE offers the best of many worlds crammed into one – a hybrid-assisted economy car, a true performance machine and a pure EV, albeit with a range of around 30 miles.
In many respects, the GTE is the ultimate manifestation of where we are with automotive technology – the best combination of electric drive, internal combustion and conventional packaging. It’s a miniature BMW i8, without the flashy styling yet with that winning Golf understatement. Sure, like almost all electric cars on the road it represents a triumph of innovation over compromise – next generation models will be better still. But for now, the GTE is quietly revolutionary, which is just how we suspect Golf drivers like things to be.