Plug-in hybrids might just be the best all-rounder – offering the low costs and lack of emissions of an electric car in town, with the range and long-distance cruising ability of an internal combustion engine. And the Passat GTE is one of the best. But the Government plans to ban such vehicles from being sold brand new. Is it right to? We're about to find out.
Our car: Volkswagen Passat GTE Estate
List price when new: £38,310
Price as tested: £39,710
Official fuel economy: 201.8mpg (WLTP Combined)
Official electric-only range: 35 miles
Fuel economy on test: 70.1mpg
While we wait for production of electric cars to ramp up and the infrastructure improvements to democratise them, the plug-in hybrid, or PHEV, seems to be an ideal short-term solution for a buyer who has the space to plug in a car, but still wants the option of an internal combustion engine to allay any range anxiety on longer trips.
Trouble is, not everyone agrees. Most notably, the Government has just announced that by 2035 hybrids – including plug-ins – will no longer be allowed to be sold brand new in the UK (though you’ll still be able to buy and sell used examples, of course).
And plug-in hybrids have been on the receiving end of plenty of negative press in recent years, with reports pointing out that if they aren’t used as their designers intended they can be even more polluting than a conventional petrol car. As a result, they no longer qualify for the Government’s ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) grant.
So is the tarnished reputation fair – or do plug-in hybrids in fact deserve a second chance?
Fresh from a facelift and now with a bigger battery and a boosted range, the Volkswagen Passat GTE should be an ideal car with which to put PHEVs to the test.
It should also slot into my life pretty seamlessly. Indeed, if I were buy a car tomorrow, a Passat Estate would be high on my list. Not only does it have a vast boot – useful for transporting our pet dog – but it’s an ideal family car, which is going to be more important than ever in the coming months with a baby on the way.
What’s more, I’ve got a driveway with a Chargemaster wallbox fitted, and my mileage involves frequent short trips around town and occasional longer journeys to visit family and friends. I am, in short, exactly the sort of driver for whom a PHEV like this should work.
But there are some significant hurdles the Passat will have to overcome if it’s to convince me its cause is worthwhile. Chief among which is how much it costs. You see, with the ULEV grant withdrawn, a PHEV doesn’t come cheap. The GTE in estate form, for example, will set you back £38,310, which feels like a terrifying amount of money for a Passat Estate.
Having said that, the equivalent R-Line model, with a less powerful 187bhp diesel engine and an automatic gearbox, will still set you back £37,725, so perhaps the 215bhp GTE isn’t quite as expensive as it first seems.
Equipment, looks and appeal
Either way, when speccing the car I decided I didn’t want to add too many options, primarily because I wanted to see whether I could keep the total cost below the £40,000 road tax threshold – something I’d be keeping in mind were I buying this GTE for real.
In any case, the GTE comes quite well equipped as standard; you get leather seats, heated in the front; LED headlights; adaptive cruise control; ambient lighting and three-zone climate control all as standard.
To that end, the only additional boxes I ticked were for the larger ‘Oxford’ alloy wheels and for Tornado Red paintwork. The latter is a controversial choice, but with its sporty styling I suspected the GTE could pull it off. I haven’t been disappointed; in the flesh I reckon our Passat looks tremendous, and far more interesting than the usual grey or silver.
And while it doesn’t quite have the style of a BMW 3-Series Touring or an Audi A4 Avant, there’s a pleasing solidity to the Passat’s lines that combine with the raked-back nose to make it quite a looker, in my eyes.
Given the Passat’s remit, I also added a couple of accessories; a dog guard and a boot liner, both with the car’s frequent canine passenger in mind. Neither of these comes cheap, so we’ll see whether it makes sense to order them with the car, or to buy cheaper aftermarket items instead.
So-equipped, the interior blends the quality and class you’d expect from a car costing this much with a utilitarian boot area ideal for coping with mud – and keeping it away from the leather. What’s more, the total price comes to £39,710 – meaning this car would cost just £135 a year to tax.
Since I wrote my first missive on the Passat, life has taken something of a turn – in more ways than one.
Firstly, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit us. That would have left the Passat sitting redundant in my driveway for more than a month, had it not been for the other big event in my life recently: the arrival of my daughter.
As a result, the Passat was pressed into service on ferry runs to the hospital and back. Firstly for ultrasound scans in the couple of weeks leading up to the birth, and then again for the big event itself – which entailed three round trips, given I wasn’t allowed to stay on the ward with my wife. Two more trips for check-ups afterwards rounded things out.
Worth having a hybrid?
While this sort of humdrum driving hardly tested the Passat, I’m pleased to say it did what a Passat does best, which is to slot seamlessly into one’s life, leaving one to concentrate on more important things. With plenty else on my mind, the Passat’s effortlessness has been greatly appreciated.
And having the hybrid version in particular has proven very handy. The hospital is a 10-mile drive from our home, so the round trip has been eminently feasible on electric power alone. As a result, I didn’t have to fill the car with fuel once; not only has this kept running costs to a minimum (indeed, I reckon each trip to the hospital and back has cost us about £1.50), but it eliminated the need for me to visit petrol stations, handle petrol pumps, and stand in queues of dubious social distancing.
Under normal circumstances, though, has running a hybrid proven justifiable so far? Well, let’s crunch some numbers. Over the course of 2,329 miles with the car, I’ve averaged 67.3mpg – and I’ve been charging it whenever it’s been parked on the driveway.
It’s a figure well in excess of what I could have expected with a diesel, and it means that at an average petrol price of £1.21/litre, the Passat has cost me £190 in fuel over the course of these 2,329 miles, or 8p per mile.
By comparison, the nearest equivalent diesel – the 2.0-litre TDI 190 R Line – would have averaged 48.7mpg, according to the newer, more realistic official fuel consumption figures. Over the same mileage, and at £1.24/litre, it would have cost me £270, or 12p per mile.
Time was that the hybrid would cost more than the diesel, but that’s no longer the case; in fact, the £38,760 list price of the GTE at the time of writing (it’s gone up a bit since we took delivery of our example) is lower than the £38,915 the R-Line diesel will set you back.
All of which means that not only will the GTE save you £800 in running costs over the course of your time with it when compared with the equivalent diesel, but it’ll cost you less to buy or lease in the first place.
There is a caveat, though, which is that you’ll have to have somewhere to charge it up. Without that, the GTE’s fuel economy drops off drastically, and that could skew the stats back in the diesel’s favour.
It rather goes without saying that one’s priorities change when one’s first child arrives on the scene, and consequently I’ve been inspecting the Passat’s Euro NCAP safety credentials of late. I’m pleased to say it’s mostly good news.
In fact, the Passat is one of those rare cars whose child occupant protection is rated higher, at 87 per cent, than that of its adult occupants (85 per cent). While those figures aren’t quite as impressive as some of its rivals’ – for example, the Mazda 6 and Peugeot 508 both offer higher scores in both categories – the Passat should still be a pretty safe place in a crash.
What’s more, the GTE comes with plenty of safety kit as standard, including a welter of airbags and, to help prevent you from getting into a crash in the first place, more driver assistance systems than you can shake a stick at.
Final report: the ultimate family car?
As you’ll already have read, the arrival of my daughter in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis turned the Passat from a useful car to have around into something of a Godsend. But all good things must come to an end, and so it goes with the GTE, which has just gone back to Volkswagen.
So, how’s it been in the intervening couple of months? Well, as lockdown eased and we were finally allowed out and about a bit more, we had our first taste of excursions with a baby on board. And as anyone who’s been a parent will know, the size of a human is inversely proportional to the amount of detritus they have to travel with.
Of course, we’ve had double the trouble, as we’ve also had Luther the labrador-cross with us on most of our trips out, too, and he’s taken up the majority of the boot. The rest was taken up by our gargantuan pushchair – but with the aid of a couple of strong bungee cords, I was able to string this up to the back seat, to leave space for the pooch behind. That left the footwells and front passenger seat for baby baggage.
We wouldn’t have been able to fit both Luther and the pushchair in the boot in a smaller estate car, or indeed, anything but a full-size SUV; truly, then, the Passat has proven its worth.
Gripes and grumbles
That’s not to say that our time with it has been entirely plain sailing, however. A number of things have got under my skin – some of which have been my own fault, and others less so.
The biggest gripe I have is with the WeConnect app. Now, this might not seem central to one’s experience of any car, but when you have a plug-in, controlling it with the app becomes immensely useful; to check how much charge you’ve got ahead of a journey, for example; or for remotely pre-heating the car, which saves you using up the battery to warm it after you’ve set off.
Trouble is, WeConnect is glacially slow, often fails to connect, and frequently refuses to do what you ask it to. What’s more, on more than one occasion it’s told me the car is unlocked, only for me to rush outside in a panic to find it is, in fact, safe and secure.
Having previously had a Tesla long-termer and used their app quite a bit, the difference is night and day in terms of usability, reliability and speed. Now that the ID.3 is coming on stream and spoiling for a fight with Fremont’s finest, buyers looking for the slickness of Tesla’s tech offering might be disappointed. VW will have to dramatically up its tech game.
Other grumbles? Well, the infotainment system works fine, for one thing, but having to press ‘OK’ to clear the welcome screen every time grows tiresome. And I lost count of the number of times I’d be alerted to the fact that the charging port in the grille – invisible from inside the car – was still open, just after I’d pulled away. My fault for not closing it, of course, but why not warn me before I’ve started driving?
The driving experience
If you’re planning to order a GTE of your own, I’d also advise you to avoid adding the larger alloy wheels, as I had. Yes, they look great – but they spoil the ride quality somewhat, and result in more noise as the wider tyres deal with rough patches of tarmac. Having driven standard GTEs before, I know they don’t all do this, so I guess the problem must have been my wheel choice.
The GTE’s driving experience as a whole is starting to feel a little dated now, too. It uses the old 1.4-litre petrol engine and six-speed DSG gearbox, both of which have now been superseded in almost every other application, and it does show.
Floor the throttle, and the gearbox and hybrid systems take a few seconds to work out together which gear and combination of petrol and electric power would be best, after which the consequent rise in revs brings coarse, intrusive engine noise. All of this makes brisk progress an unpleasant affair; the Passat isn’t slow, but rarely is using all of its performance a pleasure, and BMW’s and Kia’s PHEV powertrains feel better integrated.
You can try using GTE mode to better combine the petrol and electric motors for sportier driving, but frankly, sporty driving is something the GTE doesn’t do particularly well; it starts to feel rather uncomfortable if you try to hoof it down a back lane, tilting its body around each bend and trying to push its nose wide.
In fairness, though, no Passat is particularly adept at aping a sports car, and indeed, where any other Passat excels – on the motorway – the GTE does too, as we discovered once we were able to get out, at long last, to introduce our new daughter to her grandparents. Two days schlepping up and down at high speed convinced us that, even with these bigger wheels, the GTE is terrific at munching miles.
Conclusion: should you buy a Passat GTE?
The question I’ve found myself asking throughout my time with the Passat is: would I spend almost £40,000 – or the equivalent in monthly PCP or lease costs – it takes to buy the GTE, instead of settling for a normal petrol or diesel Passat?
I’ve struggled to decide on an answer. On the one hand, the GTE’s ability to plug in has undoubtedly saved us money. We’ve now averaged 65.5mpg over the course of our 2,927 miles with the car, and I doubt we’d have managed anywhere near that in a diesel, let alone a petrol car.
And when you’re on electric power, whirring around town emission-free with the instant torque of the electric motor on tap, this does feel like a cracking bit of kit.
But with that exception, the things I’ve appreciated the most about our car can almost all be found in any other Passat. In fact, I’d go as far as to say almost everything that’s annoyed me about the GTE can be avoided by choosing a conventional Passat instead.
What’s more, there’s no doubt a petrol or diesel Passat would feel sweeter to drive; less hampered by the extra weight of the battery, and with less of the chopping and changing between electric and petrol modes.
Of course, this somewhat misses the point, because the GTE will appeal most to company car buyers looking to save a packet on their tax bill. And in that context, it makes far more sense – the inadequacies of the drivetrain are not so glaring that you couldn’t live with them for a significant tax saving.
If you’re choosing a company car and you’ve got somewhere to plug in, then, the GTE works. Even if you’re buying privately, it’s worth considering. After all, at the moment there are relatively few plug-in estates on the market – although that won’t be the case for long, and I suspect newer models will soon start to show up the Passat’s age.
But as good as the GTE is, it’s hard to get away from the fact that it feels a tad overblown by comparison with the simpler diesel models, which still feel like all the Passat you could ever need.
I won’t mourn our GTE then, but I will miss it. If there was ever a time and a place for a car like this, this was most certainly it. What’s more, it looked terrific, helped us out in a time of need, and eased us into family motoring with as little hassle as possible.
And while it hasn’t quite made a cast-iron case for PHEVs, it’s certainly made one for the Passat which, if you happen to have a large-dog-and-baby combo to lug around, is still one of the best cars out there for the job.
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