Volkswagen Launches the People's Electric Car

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This is an important moment in the electric car history. Volkswagen (VLKAY) plans to sell eGolf in America by year-end -- and I was one of the first people to test drive it on U.S. soil this week.

VW added the eGolf to the European sales roster approximately two months ago. It will arrive in U.S. dealerships around December.

When it comes to e-cars, VW is miles ahead of its two main rivals for worldwide automotive domination: Toyota (TM) and General Motors (GM). (The three were tightly clustered right around the 10 million units-per-year mark in 2013.) VW makes two electric cars: the eGolf and the eUp.

Unlike its rivals, VW's eUP is a mainstream, mass-produced, pure electric car broadly available across many countries. It has been selling the eUp in many European countries for several months. Unfortunately, it will not be sold in the U.S. market, because the U.S. has a lot of red tape surrounding crash tests.

As for the eGolf, the U.S. price has not yet been set, but I expect it will be priced not too far from its main rival, the volume leader Nissan (LEAF). Depending on equipment, that would mean somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000 before tax adjustments.

Let's ponder this situation for a moment: VW is now the only automaker with two completely different, 100% electric, mainstream cars delivering in volume across broad geographies, in several countries. It is clear that VW has the electric-vehicle volume leader Nissan in its sights, even though Nissan is, of course, the world's dominant EV unit volume manufacturer, at this point.

Speaking of volume and growth markets, VW now sells 3.2 million cars per year in China. Volkswagen told me that it stands ready to meet any demand from the Chinese market in terms of selling locally made electric cars in significant volume.

Volkswagen brought over a few electric 2015 Golfs to the U.S. ahead of the December quarter launch. Earlier this week I became one of the first to drive these cars on U.S. soil.

For reference, in the days and weeks prior, I had spent time driving many of the competitors, including the BMW i3, Mercedes B-Class Electric, Chevrolet Volt, Cadillac ELR, Ford (F) Focus Electric and some of the other models vying for plug-in consumer interest.

In addition, I drove the electric VW Golf back to back against both the regular gasoline and diesel versions of this all-new 2015 model. This provided for yet another perspective on how different the electric Golf is.

Let's start with body and interior space: The good news here is it is identical to the regular 2015 Golf, which begins U.S. sales this summer. This car benefits from being perhaps the best-packaged car of anything in the market.

Let's run down the contest against the major competitors:

Front seat: Only the BMW i3 is a hair better but the eGolf is at least on par with the Mercedes B-class, and it's better than the Volt and Ford Focus. Much better than the Nissan Leaf.

Steering wheel: Only the BMW i3 and Mercedes B-class are a hair better. The Volt, Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf are far behind.

Pedal space: The best, followed by the BMW, Mercedes and Volt. The Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf are behind.

Seating position: Slightly behind the BMW i3, basically on par with the Mercedes B-class and a bit better than the Volt and Ford Focus. Infinitely better than the Nissan Leaf.

Instrumentation: This is subjective, but I think the eGolf may have the easiest-to-master instrumentation in its class. This is a huge improvement from previous Golf models. In fairness, I don't think there is a lot separating the usability of the various instruments and infotainment systems among these cars. Neither is great by any means but they are all among the better in the industry. It is more a matter of taste than an objective victory here. That said, I put the eGolf at the top of this list.

Back seat: Best in class, on par with Mercedes B-class. The Volt and BMW i3 fit only two people, the Nissan Leaf has less headroom and the Ford Focus is just a little tighter overall.

Luggage space: Not as large as the Mercedes, a hair smaller than the Leaf and probably not ahead of the Volt but clearly better than the BMW i3. The Ford Focus is a catastrophe in the luggage department.

In terms of the cars just standing still, I give the nod to the Mercedes B-class. It's a taller body and has more luggage space. The Golf ties the Mercedes when you consider it's working with smaller outer dimensions. The BMW i3 has the comfiest front seat and driving position, but the rear seat only fits two and the luggage space is small.

OK, so what about driving the eGolf? How does it compare?

The basic throttle response and braking feels very similar to the Mercedes B-class, Chevy Volt, Ford Focus and Nissan Leaf. They are all well-balanced and exhibit a lack of drama. It's really the other factors that set them apart -- seating position, steering wheel, instrumentation controls and so forth.

The outlier of the group is clearly the BMW i3. It feels like nothing else on wheels. The BMW has a dramatically precise steering and an amazing accelerator pedal with a supremely calibrated regenerative braking. Nothing else on the road comes close.

The BMW i3 is so different to drive that I find it polarizing. It's so superior in its sharpness but at the same time I fear it may become tiring to drive. It has the potential for making me car sick because of the heavy g-forces throwing my head in all four directions as I brake, accelerate and steer. While I have driven the i3, I think, at nine times now, I still need to drive it for at least a couple of full days in order to be able to tell more conclusively whether I would prefer to live with its sharp responses from steering and pedals.

In contrast, the VW eGolf could almost put you to sleep because it is so calming and smooth, as are most of the other competitors. This is meant in a good way.

What about the other factors?

The Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 offer one thing the competition does not: gasoline backup, which is optional in the BMW i3 and standard in the Volt. For some people, this is an absolute requirement for living with a plug-in car.

In terms of DC fast-charging, the VW Golf electric will have the new charging combined DC/AC standard, just like the BMW i3 and for that matter the West-Coast-only Chevrolet Spark. This is unlike the Mercedes B-class and Ford Focus, neither of which offers any DC charging.

Bottom line: Strong entry into a tiny market

If you absolutely need to have a pure EV in this price range -- $30,000 to $50,000 -- the VW Golf electric should be your top choice side by side with the Mercedes B-class and perhaps the BMW i3. However, for most people the Chevrolet Volt is the better option because of its gasoline backup.

For another $10,000 or more over the Volt, the BMW i3 with range-extender also provides some of this benefit, although with a tiny and difficult to manage two-gallon gasoline tank.

In order to sell more plug-in cars, VW needs to launch plug-in hybrids as well as pure EVs with longer range. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see such models from VW on U.S. roads before 2017.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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