What is it?
It’s the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid version of the car Shapur drove way back in 2014, and it was also on display at this year’s Auto Expo in February. In the wake of the diesel ban in the Delhi NCR, many carmakers are revisiting petrol engines, while others are going a step further with hybrid solutions. This Passat is one such car, but unlike the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which is a simpler parallel hybrid (it charges itself as you drive), this is a plug-in hybrid, like the BMW i8. The difference is, it can be charged from a power socket at home, and the advantage is, if you charge it every day and don’t have long distances to drive, you could potentially use it entirely in electric mode with zero fuel consumption! Even if you do use the petrol motor, VW claims an astonishing fuel efficiency figure of 62.5kpl, and a driving range of 1,100km.
It’s certainly an exciting prospect, but also an expensive one. With the regular diesel Passat expected to cost upwards of Rs 30 lakh (ex-showroom), this high-tech variant will likely be beyond the Rs 40 lakh mark. Unlike Toyota, VW is unlikely to assemble the Passat GTE in India, and the import duties will only drive the cost up. In fact, rather than doing a conventional launch, the company is planning to initially bring in just a handful of cars – around 10 or 15 – to establish how feasible it will be for our infrastructure – both the roads and the electric power grid. We spent some time with the Passat GTE in Berlin to see what it’s like.
What’s it like inside?
It is, as expected, virtually identical to the diesel Passat, except for a few cool changes. There are blue accents all over the cabin, notably contrast stitching on the steering wheel and seats, as well as some blue trim on the gear lever and door pads. These match the blue accents on the exterior – on the grille and flanks. Also, interestingly, there’s no ‘Passat’ badge on this car, only ‘GTE’. Back to the inside, you also get VW’s new optional massaging front seats, and there are unique dials (analogue standard and digital optional) and various new displays on the infotainment touchscreen with a variety of different hybrid-specific readouts.
Apart from the usual ‘active power source’ display and various others like distance-to-empty for the batteries and fuel tank, there’s also another cool one that shows you how much further you could drive if you altered some aspect of your drive. For instance, we switched off the air-con and were told we could drive 1km further in electric mode as a result. Other changes include moving the fuel tank underneath the boot (it makes the luggage area smaller and shallower), because the 9.9kWh battery has taken its place under the rear seat. The rear seat itself is unchanged, and as with the regular car, is a spacious and comfortable place for two.
What’s it like to drive?
Weirdly, I got my first sense of the Passat GTE’s powertrain from the driver’s seat of the diesel car, as I followed the hybrid in a convoy. Every time a traffic light turned green, the GTE in front of me just shot off the line, and even when I flattened the throttle in the 2.0 TDI, it took a few long seconds to catch up. That’s the power of instantly available electric torque, and the VW engineers even had to warn us to be careful with the GTE’s throttle. The car starts, by default, in dead-silent full-electric mode and this makes it even more surprising when you’re thrust forward briskly at the merest tap of the right pedal.
Once you’ve learned to modulate it, though, it starts to feel really natural. E-mode lets you drive at speeds up to 130kph and has a potential range of 50km, which, as I mentioned earlier, could be enough for many to do their daily commute comfortably between charges. The next mode is hybrid, where the system decides on its own when to shift between the electric motor and the petrol engine, based on your throttle inputs and speed, just as with a parallel hybrid like the Toyota Camry.
The engine in question is a familiar one – the 1.4-litre TSI turbo-petrol from the Octavia and Jetta, with a little more power, at 156hp. You rarely get to experience it entirely on its own, as there’s no ‘Petrol only’ mode, but combined with constant electric backup, it feels more than powerful enough. The next mode is called ‘Charging’, where the petrol engine is working primarily to charge the batteries. This means it tries to stick to higher revs with a view to generate maximum electricity, and this will consume a lot of fuel. The final mode is ‘GTE’ and this is the one VW says is for maximum fun. Here, both forms of propulsion are giving you their most for a total of 218hp. It certainly feels a closer relation to a GTI than a TDI in this mode, and the sheer thrust of the thing is surprisingly addictive.
Additionally, where you would normally access Sport or ‘S’ mode for the powertrain by tapping the gear lever to the left of ‘D’, doing so in the GTE activates ‘B’ mode. Doing this maximises the regenerative braking, to the point that, in normal use, you don’t have to touch the brakes at all. Just lifting off the accelerator results in serious deceleration, and as a precaution to other motorists, the brake lights even come on when you do this.
Should I buy one?
As of now, it’s not entirely clear if and when you will be able to buy a Passat GTE, but expect the trial run of 10-15 cars to arrive here shortly after the regular diesel version is launched. The most impressive part about this car is how ‘conventional’ it has been made to feel. The controls and interfaces are no different from a regular Passat, yet you know there is so much more going on behind the scenes. The switch between electric and combustion modes is absolutely seamless and if do want to see how your power’s being used, all the requisite graphs and diagrams are available. Plus, in full GTE mode, it’s got some pretty peppy performance.
The Passat GTE will, no doubt, be expensive – on par with an Audi A4 ¬– and that will be a big hurdle for Volkswagen, not to mention that most Indian homes and offices aren’t designed with vehicle charging in mind. But then that’s not the point of this car. VW wants to make a statement about where the car world is headed, and also – in the wake of its very public global emissions scandal – prove that it’s an environmentally responsible company that’s technologically geared for the future. The VW Passat GTE is a truly impressive vehicle that’s a step ahead of the parallel hybrids that Indian customers have been exposed to until now. It will sit in a very small niche in India, but we feel the few who will pay the premium, will do so for the technology and the green credentials, rather than just the mileage. We bet VW sees it that way too.