VW e-Golf: Do its 3 modes do what electric-car drivers want?

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Take any number of electric cars from different automakers for a brief test drive, and one thing will be abundantly clear: There’s not yet a norm for how EV powertrains are expected to behave.

Some electric cars glide along when you lift off the accelerator, with little or no regenerative braking (as energy in deceleration is recovered through the wheels and stored in the battery); meanwhile other vehicles lose speed quickly as you lift off the accelerator.

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And then there’s quite the difference in the way that the accelerator and brake pedal respond—including how an electric car “blends” regenerative braking with old-fashioned friction braking (yes, rotors and pads) for the last few feet of a stop.

Beyond that, there’s a wide range in how much choice you’re given as the driver. Some electric cars like the Fiat 500e offer no control over the level of regenerative braking whatsoever, beyond what you can get with the brake pedal, while others, like our long-term 2015 Volkswagen e-Golf, offer several regenerative modes.

Shift to Drive, pick your regen level

Just slide the e-Golf’s shifter back to ‘D’ and this model coasts almost to no end. Yet the D1, D2, and D3 regenerative modes offered quite a different personality, with D1 more like a typical gasoline vehicle, D2 like a geared-down sports car, and D3 (or B, if you select it that way) at nearly Tesla-level regeneration.

2015 Volkswagen e-Golf - Long-term test car [November 2015]

2015 Volkswagen e-Golf - Long-term test car [November 2015]

Enlarge Photo

Setting out driving the e-Golf, our typical routine involved clicking the lever to the left 2-3 times (to access those deeper regen modes) if driving alone, or clicking the shift lever just once to the left with a passenger. It’s a happier space that way.

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In the max-regen mode, D3, you can almost be a one-pedal driver, planning your stops a bit ahead of time and feeling smug that you’re getting the most out of your charge.

One thing I grew to appreciate is the adaptive creep feature that’s built into the e-Golf. If you’re already rolling, even slightly, the e-Golf will creep gently ahead—nearly as much as an automatic-transmission gasoline car. But if you step firmly on the brake, reach a full stop, and then lift off the brake pedal, you won’t go anywhere; just make sure it’s level, as hill-hold functionality isn’t to be counted on and the e-Golf can actually roll backward a bit.

One normal driving mode, two others for eco-extremists

2015 Volkswagen e-Golf - Long-term test car

2015 Volkswagen e-Golf - Long-term test car

Enlarge Photo

That’s only part of it, however. The e-Golf offers three different driving modes. In Normal mode, this model has a perky driving feel and a nice, linear accelerator response.

Move to Eco mode and the e-Golf has a reduced top speed (72 mph), as well as reduced motor output (94 hp and 162 lb-ft). In addition, this mode makes the accelerator pedal feel flatter (especially in its response from a standing start), and it cuts the output of the climate control’s heating and air conditioning—often to the point of being ineffective, as even in 50-degree damp winter days it often couldn't keep the windows clear.

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The Eco+ mode resorts to extremes to eke every last tenth of a mile of range out of the battery’s charge. It limits power to 74 hp, torque to just 129 lb-ft, and top speed to 56 mph.

Run up against that 56 mph and totally floor the accelerator, against the detent, and you’ll push out of Eco+.

During our time with the e-Golf (we recently turned it in), we seldom used Eco or Eco+, because in Portland’s typically damp winters and an unusually hot summer, having effective climate control was a necessity for comfort and/or visibility.

Are three driving modes and four different modes of regen too much for the typical buyer to navigate? By the end of our test, we’re believers in VW’s approach—that it’s the right one, in light of some very different expectations.

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