20 years ago, Volkswagen became one of the first makers to retail a diesel family hatchback with standard engine stop-start: the Golf Ecomatic.
Precursor to today’s Golf Bluemotion, it was a bit of a revolution for its time: as is often the case with such revolutions, it was ahead of its time, and thus largely ignored by the marketplace.
Hence my excitement when I discovered Volkswagen has one of these landmark cars on its UK heritage fleet. At last, two decades after seeing the spot on Top Gear, I was to drive this logic-defying car.
Now, the Mk3 isn’t a favourite of the Golf line. It’s many people’s least favourite Golf, in fact, although I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Hard to believe that I’d never previously driven one, perhaps explaining the soft spot; as I stepped in and the soft suspension squidged beneath me, I started to understand some of the critics.
Forget all that though. This wasn’t a dynamic test – it was an experience of the world’s first high-tech eco diesel, which had already been demonstrated to me by utterly confident PR man Rory. See, instead of a regular five-speed manual, it has a two-pedal semi-auto clutch… but still retains the gearlever. Yes, really: you row the gearlever but keep your left foot static – the car handles the clutch-dipping stuff.
Rory, sitting half-in the car, both feet on the ground, showcased this by starting the car… then putting it into gear. Did it graunch? No. Did it shoot off into the expensive row of VW e-Up next to it? No. Clever stuff even today – for 1993, it must’ve been, er, revolutionary.
Just one warning before I set off. This wasn’t a modern torque-fest TDI, but a non-turbo diesel with just 64hp. “The e-Up’s faster…”.
And so, slightly uneasily, I started her up, felt the vibo-rumble instantly date it, then with a wry grin slipped it into first and crept away. After an arc of throttle (no electric accelerator immediacy here), the clutch bit rather slipperily, and we were off.
Into second: what to do? Lift the throttle but keep the left foot static – like rubbing your head and patting your chest, it took some practice to come naturally. The systems worked rather well though: sure, it lacked finesse, but learn to drive round it and it could become reasonably fluid. There are clutchless manuals on sale today that aren’t much smoother than this.
The really weird bit was the stop-start, though. Modern systems wait until you’re stationary before they shut the engine down (the better ones wait until you’re almost stationary, saving a bit more fuel in the roll-down to 0mph).
None of that for this, though. Lift off, even at 70mph, and the engine would cut. Freewheeling in the outside lane of the A5: a weird sensation alright. What’s more, the engine didn’t restart until you’d pressed the throttle pretty firmly down – simply brake and you’d coast to a complete halt in silence. It really was rather disconcerting.
The Police were clearly intrigued at the time too, said PR chief Paul Buckett: bosses from the Hendon driving school were among attendees of the original launch, to see if they needed to rewrite their advanced driving instructions to never coast (clearly not, given how only now do systems such as Porsche’s PDK offer coasting functionality).
Thing is, the more time I drove it, the more I felt this Golf was a smart car properly ahead of its time. The engine, like in range extender EVs, had become simply a device to push you forward. When you weren’t asking it to do so, it shut itself off. As it could so easily be decoupled from the car, so petrolheaded emotional attachment to it fades; the engine could be anything, so long as it moves the car forward when asked to.
Clearly we’re still not ready for this. The latest Golf Bluemotion still has manual control via a proper clutch for its six-speed. The engine only goes off when the wheels stop rolling. Because it’s actually rather punchy, you engage with it more and actually enjoy driving it.
But the Golf Ecomatic’s time will surely come. The feeling, when driving it, coasting along in engine-off serenity, is one of free power, of serious eco thumbs-uppery. With modern aero and low rolling resistance tyres, the effect here would surely only be magnified: add on a DSG to control the clutch for a genuine ‘engine for forward motion only’ Golf.
As the current one does 88.3mpg, surely such a car could have the potential to top 100mpg?
Yup, Volkswagen UK’s immaculate heritage car is a bit of an eye-opener: the intelligent person’s green car that was a model ahead of its time. Has the time come to review its principals?
VW UK, maybe it’s time you invited Dr. Hackenberg over to have a spin in it…