The struggle of the motor industry – not to mention climate campaigners globally – to persuade customers to switch allegiances from the internal combustion engine to alternatives such as electric cars, hybrids, or plug-in hybrids, is one that has vexed many of us for some time now.
The industry is largely mistrusted by its own clientele after a series of shocking and disturbing revelations about how it has deliberately deceived authorities and buyers alike about the amount of seriously bad stuff its products were pumping into our atmosphere. Car companies have been proven to have lied through their teeth and acted criminally in their efforts to hide their sins.
Those chilling actions alone have not dulled our love of the motor car nor our need for them, but they have focussed us on the need for cleaner versions of the automobile. Manufacturers — and we all know the spiel by now — are now in a race to electrify the lot of us and now we are facing into a non-internal combustion engine future with the likelihood of autonomous driving on the horizon as well.
While we are waiting for all that to be delivered however, the current (pun intended) reality is that hybrid and PHEV vehicles are with us whether we like it or not. And while Examiner Motoring is highly sceptical about the longevity of these technologies, the fact of the matter is that such machines are currently viable options for a large number of motorists.
One such is our tester this week and in my experience of these things it is one of the best of them we have driven over the past number of years. The car in question is the new Volkswagen Passat GTE and, of course, there is a certain irony in this as it was the VW Group which was behind the scandalous ‘dieselgate’ outrage, although few believe that most other manufacturers were innocent in all of this.
The whole area of hybrid/PHEV is a matter of universal discussion right now and despite a new academic report this week from a combination of universities across Europe which appears to categorically show that electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe — contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits.
According to the study, the answer to the carbon emission problems is clear: To reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars over fossil fuel alternatives.
Some climate controversialists argue that electric cars are “simply expensive gadgets heavily subsidised for the wealthy to feel good while doing very little for the planet”. But the signs appear clear and the industry stance – that electric cars are the future and PHEVs and hybrids are a stepping-stone to that reality – is largely true.
The trouble is that PHEVs allow drivers to switch between battery electric power and an ICE, delivering significant emissions improvements over conventional cars. However, environmental campaigners have long harboured concerns that plug-in hybrids do not offer the environmental benefits suggested by carmakers’ advertising or regulators’ laboratory tests.
Most such cars have limitations on pure electric driving ability and many will resort — even while in electric-only mode — to reverting to engine power when you do something as simple as de-misting the windscreen. Thus some critics labels them as ‘fake EVs’ because of their continued use of internal combustion engines.
And then there are the claims that the fuel economies claimed by motor companies are exaggerated. Updated analysis found that in real life almost all plug-in hybrid cars failed to achieve the mileage found in lab tests, suggesting that many users do not charge them sufficiently. On the other side of the coin, studies confirm that of 1,388 plug-ins tested over an eight-month period, it was found they achieved an average of only one-third of the figure being advertised by the manufacturers.
Well, here at Examiner Motoring, we have found few of these things to be anything other than glossy tax-avoidance vehicles which advertised their clean and economic credentials loudly, but don’t come anywhere near fulfilling them, allowing motorists to fly the PHEV flag while running on engine power only for a majority of the time.
The Passat is a slightly different kettle of fish in that it is a very polished performer and that’s not something which can be said of everything in this niche. With a combined power output of 215 bhp from the 156 bhp 1.4 TSi petrol engine and a 115 bhp electric motor which has 31% more capacity than previously.
In revised form, the car has a completely electric range of up to 56km, depending on the demands you place upon it and it emits just 29 g/km of carbon dioxide for an A1 tax band rating for an annual bill of €170.
On the performance front the car demonstrates a top speed of 220kph and a lively 0-100kph time of 7.4 seconds, but the consumption rates are something of a contentious issue. The factory claims an economy rate of 1.5 l/100 km (which is an astonishing 186.6 mpg), but the reality I found is rather less positive, with a return on average of 3.5 l/100km — on a full charge — which is a more realistic 78.2 mpg. Motorway driving and other longer haul trips provided a more real-world feel with a return of no more than 6.5 l/100km (or 43 mpg).
Certainly, to extract the maximum economy from the GTE you cannot simply get into the car and drive; you have to plan a strategy and stick with it if you want to see results that are anywhere near the spectacular levels of consumption claimed for it. If you are not concerned by this, it goes like stink, but you’ll drink petrol (and electricity).
As pointed out earlier, the industry believes that the PHEV option is merely a springboard to fully electric motoring and thus something of a stop-gap for the moment. But, if you are moving away from diesel or petrol power for good, this actually represents a decent option that you will not be charged a premium for.
As we have highlighted in these columns before, car companies are definitely charging a hefty whack of cash for the privilege of being clean — citing the expense of revised research and development and tooling up/manufacturing investments — but VW maintains there is little between the cost of this car and Passat TDi models, especially when you factor in SEAI grants and VRT rebates.
It is worth noting too that this is a car which is spectacularly specified — stuff like the digital cockpit and full leather upholstery make it quite special — and still has all the merit in terms of handling, ride, spaciousness and passenger comfort that is expected from a Passat.
Without doubt, this is one of the nicest PHEVs we have tested and while it is heavier than a regular Passat, it is a lot more sophisticated than any rivals I’ve encountered and the best advertisement for the genre that has passed through my gates. It is a big, practical car with plenty of kit and is actually enjoyable to drive.
In a niche market which is evolving very quickly, this in the standard-bearer thus far in our experience.
The Cost: From €42,495 to €43,295 as tested.
The Engine: Petrol/electric — and one of the best of them.
The Specification: Right royal.
The Overall Verdict: Best of the hybrid gang by some margin.
Star Rating: ****