Hybrid Hondas and Toyotas have been around for years, but Volkswagen is only now preparing to respond with models like the VW Golf Plug-in Hybrid.
A conventional hybrid Golf will go on sale in around a year's time, with this plug-in version following shortly afterwards.
It will join the mechanically identical A3 e-tron from Volkswagen's sister company Audi and, like that car, it won't be cheap, costing close to £30,000. However, it combines an official average of 188mpg with distinctly sporting performance and emissions of just 35g/km.
The Golf Plug-in Hybrid (VW may yet call it Twin Drive) is powered by two engines: a 148bhp 1.4-litre turbo petrol and a 100bhp electric motor.
They're linked to a six-speed DSG automatic gearbox, while the lithium-iron battery pack is charged by regenerative braking, by the petrol engine and via a power socket beneath the VW badge on the grille.
A three-hour 45 minute tethering to a domestic socket is enough to charge it for 31 miles of zero emission, electric-only driving at speeds of up to 80mph, while the Golf Plug-in’s total range is 584 miles.
What’s the 2014 VW Golf Plug-in Hybrid like inside?
It feels much like any other Golf from behind the wheel, which means it’s well-made and spacious, with a clear and logical control layout, and a finely crafted but rather unimaginatively styled dashboard.
There are a few differences, though, with the main one being an instrument display that indicates whether you are draining the battery or charging it, and what your available electric range is.
There’s an additional button next to the gearlever, too, which you use to select electric-only drive and three other modes: a charge mode that part-harnesses the petrol engine to replenish the battery pack; a save mode, which conserves the pack's energy for later use in a zero emission city centre; and the hybrid drive mode that the car defaults to on start-up.
What’s the 2014 VW Golf Plug-in Hybrid like to drive?
If you leave it in hybrid drive mode, the plug-in Golf automatically determines which combination of engine power best serves your fuel-saving needs.
In traffic you’ll quite often enjoy near total silence as the car advances under electric power alone, and the petrol engine quite often cuts out at higher speeds, too, not least when coasting.
Firmer acceleration calls up the petrol engine, with the two power sources blending almost unnoticed to provide usefully brisk acceleration.
The automatic gearbox, meanwhile, is usually smooth, although it sometimes jolts during downshifts.
More of a challenge to smooth driving is the Plug-in’s departure from rest, because the car surges jerkily unless you’re very gentle with the accelerator. The reason for this is the instant deployment of the electric motor’s entire - and considerable - pulling power, which can make for a rather sudden advance. Engineers developing the near identical Audi A3 e-tron say that this flaw will be solved but it will be a challenge.
Although the Golf Plug-in weighs 345kg more than a standard Golf 1.4 TSI, much of the extra hardware is located at the car’s rear, the resulting improved weight distribution sharpening the car’s handling through bends.
Less satisfying are its sometimes jerky brakes, but the Plug-in’s performance produces a subtly enjoyable and sporting drive.
Should I buy one?
The performance element is something to remember if you’re considering this car, because if it’s straight money saving you’re after, it makes a lot more sense to buy a basic Golf diesel costing £9000 less.
That said, if most of your trips fall within its 31-mile electric-drive range, the Plug-in could prove very cheap to run, and although 188mpg is unlikely, it’s considerably more economical than that basic diesel in hybrid mode.
The jerkiness from rest and the occasionally clunky gearchanges need sorting, but this is an intriguing and appealing greener Golf despite its high price.
By Richard Bremner
What Car? says...
Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI Plug-in Hybrid
Engine size 1.4 turbo petrol and electric motor
Price from £29,000 (est)
Torque 258lb ft
0-62mph 7.6 seconds
Top speed 135mph
Fuel economy 188mpg