The Volkswagen GTE is a true hot-hatch hybrid

Hybrids are getting better and better, and VW might have crafted one of the best yet. It's the plug-in GTE, and it's one of the most entertaining battery/gasoline machines we've yet driven.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
5 min read

Though there is a growing squadron of cars that defy the notion, hybrids are still considered boring cars by many. Volkswagen is doing its part with a plug-in hybrid Golf, which it has dubbed the GTE. Yes, it slots into the hot hatch family sired by GTI, which in Europe also includes the diesel-powered GTD.

Drivers outside of that continent won't have access to the GTD, and similarly there are no plans to release the GTE internationally. So, when Volkswagen invited us to Germany to try the thing, we couldn't miss the opportunity to try out what could be one of the most enjoyable plug-in hybrids on the road.

Driving Volkswagen's plug-in GTE hybrid (pictures)

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First, let's get the details out there. The duo of powertrains includes a 148-horsepower, 1.4-liter, turbocharged, direct-injection TSI engine mated with a 100-horsepower electric motor. Mix the two together and you get roughly 200 effective horsepower routed through a six-speed, double-clutch gearbox. That's just 20 horsepower short of the current GTI, but there's also roughly 250 pounds in extra batteries, motors and electronics to haul around. That's a considerable penalty.

Of course, it comes with a considerable advantage too, namely a combined fuel mileage of over 150 mpg. And, as a plug-in, the car has a range of 50km (just over 30 miles) on a charge. Of course, your actual mileage may vary, largely depending upon how frequently you make short trips with charges in between.

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The real question, though, is whether it actually feels like a GTI to drive. And the real answer is that yes, yes it does -- mostly. Slotting into the interior and the comfortable yet supportive seats certainly feels like sitting into a GTI, and the cheery plaid inserts in those seats definitely helps. But, here the plaid is predominantly blue, as is the stitching in the shift boot and many other highlights inside and out, a subtle nod to the electric nature of the thing.

The interior is generally good, most materials feeling solid and plush to the touch. There are some cheap plastics here and there, and the fabric on the arm rest feels a bit flimsy, but it's overall a nice place to be. The 6.5-inch touchscreen in the center console offers all the connectivity you'd want and even features proximity detection, hiding on-screen controls until your hand comes near. Navigation is functional, if a bit ugly.

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With keyless ignition, all you need to do is press the engine start/stop button, shift the DSG transmission into D, and go. Do so without mashing your foot to the floor and you'll be greeted with no sound, no vibration, just the pleasant responsiveness and urge of an EV power train.

In E-Mode the GTE will try to use all its battery power before spinning up that 1.4 liter four, and it's surprisingly pleasant to drive around town in this way, accelerating briskly and even getting up to highway speeds without a struggle. Sure, it doesn't have much oomph at anything above 40 miles per hour relying on the battery pack alone, but when you're feeling frugal it's good to know you aren't restricted to low-speed stuff.

When you're feeling frisky, there's GTE mode. Here the throttle response is increased, the steering gains resistance, the transmission's shifts become more aggressive and, if you've paid extra for the dynamic suspension, that stiffens up too. Now it begins to feel like a proper GTI. Acceleration is genuinely good -- not matching the GTI, but not lacking either. The engine even sounds good, which isn't something that can be said for the Chevy Volt.

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The car I drove sadly lacked the DCC suspension, and while the standard dampers did a fair job of offering a compliant ride while keeping the extra weight of those batteries in check, it doesn't feel particularly sporty. Still, the overall driving dynamic was far greater than your average hybrid, particularly the brakes, which thankfully lack the terribly mushy feeling found in a Prius.

The GTE also offers a Hold mode, which will use the TSI engine to maintain the battery's current state of charge. And then there's the basic Hybrid mode, which is what the car kicks into when the battery depletes -- or when you really stomp on the gas in E-Mode. This is probably the weakest part of the GTE, the electric-gasoline handover. Instead of a smooth transition the car simply falls on its face for just a moment while that TSI engine spins up. If you're calling for more power to make a risky merge or overtake, it can be a little disconcerting. Hopefully VW can address this with an ECU update or the like.

Other than that glitch my time in the car was quite pleasant, even cruising on unrestricted portions of the Autobahn. Sadly traffic was too thick to approach the car's 222kmph (137mph) maximum speed, but at well over 100mph things were smooth and quiet. And, for those times when you're dragging yourself along the highway at more sensible velocities, the adaptive cruise control and lane assist will make sure that you stay safe.

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While the driving experience in the GTE isn't perfect, it is quite good, making it one of the most compelling plug-in hybrids on the market. Sadly, though, that market is unfortunately small at the moment, with the car not straying far from its home market of Germany. It starts at €36,900, which translates to roughly $46,250 based on current rates. (That's £28,914, or AU$52,581.) Not cheap, but considering a base GTI with the DSG transmission starts at €30,600 in Germany, that isn't an unreasonable premium.

It's hard to imagine the GTE would find find anything but a very willing audience in the United States and elsewhere in the world, so we remain hopeful that this little hot hatch hybrid will be getting its passport stamped soon.

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