Volkswagen e-Golf Test: Does Zero Emissions Work in New York?

Eric Schaal
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you need an oxymoron and you’re tired of “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence,” you might be tempted to try “zero emissions New York.” In Gotham City, you have millions of people dependent on diesel trucks to deliver (and remove) the essentials, the luxury items, and the things we don’t even know are entering city limits.

That’s a lot of tailpipe smoke for the masses to breathe. Tackling the auto emissions problem would seem like an important priority, all things considered, so we set out for another trip in an electric vehicle to see the state of things in New York City. (Previously, we found beach trips in the Focus Electric to be complicated affairs.) Driving a 2015 Volkswagen e-Golf on a three-day loan, we wanted to keep things local for the most part while searching for the elusive zero emissions charge and navigating through four of the five boroughs plus Long Island.

We found the e-Golf a reliable companion in the city, charge permitting, and even operated for part of the trip on solar power alone. But the chips remain stacked against EVs. Here’s what you can expect trying to go zero emissions in Manhattan in the electric VW rated at 83 miles of total range.

1. Keep a close eye on your charge in the city

Eric Schaal
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Running the Kia Soul EV in Los Angeles for four days was a textbook example of how to keep a car charged in public places. LA is very much the ideal place for an electric vehicle, even when you aren’t charging at home.

In New York, the opposite is true. Outside of a few obscure spots, charging stations are strictly housed inside pricey parking garages, making the process close to impossible for an apartment dweller. When we received the e-Golf on a Monday, there was about 30 miles of charge in the battery (as warned by a VW rep), so we maneuvered uptown in hopes of getting some juice.

Our trusty ChargePoint app said to try the Asser Levy Motor Pool (backed up the alternative fuel station website and NYC Parks Department), but we were sternly rebuffed by a police officer who said the mostly empty lot was reserved for visitors to the hospital. From this location in the east 20s, we dove into the ugliness of midday traffic in Manhattan, bound for 55th Street near 11th Avenue, where a Mini dealership hosts a ChargePoint station for BMW i vehicles from down the street.

Mini’s staff was nice enough to unplug an i3 and let us charge our VW, so the e-Golf got to add no-cost miles while we looked into BMW’s selection down the street. Charging at 3.2 kW (a split 6.6 kW charger), we got 27 miles for 2 hours, 27 minutes’ worth of charge time. Good thing we had cleared our schedule for the day and work remotely.

2. Zero emissions charging on Long Island

Eric Schaal
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

By Day Two, we were ready to get on the road, so we headed for Point Lookout on Long Island, where it was said the area’s only solar charging station hosted electric vehicles in Hempstead’s East Marina parking lot. Flanked by a giant windmill on one side, boats docked on the bay, and Lido Beach to the south, we pulled in and found the station just as described, a zero emissions nirvana in a picturesque seaside spot.

Located 38 miles from our starting point in downtown Manhattan, we had fewer than 10 miles remaining when we arrived at Point Lookout (range anxiety, anyone?) and dinner plans back in the city for 7 p.m. So we made a few gambles and lost one because the station supplied just 3.1 kW of power. In 3 hours and 20 minutes of charging, we added 36 miles to the battery (the meter read 56 miles).

We had to postpone the reservation for 45 minutes to make sure we had the charge to actually get back to Manhattan, but we made it. In the course of our light highway driving, you notice how quickly the battery power evaporates. When we left the city earlier, we had 56 miles of charge on the gauge and ended up at Point Lookout with 7 miles — 49 miles down despite the actual distance of 38 miles.

Toss the 105 miles per gallon highway equivalent rating out the window when you are driving. Driving over 40 miles per hour prompts serious battery drain in the e-Golf, even with the air conditioner off, and controlling your acceleration is often impossible in the rigors of highway driving.

But what a feeling it was to charge up on solar power. Critics of EVs say the zero emissions claim is bogus. Maybe in some places it is, but on Point Lookout in an electric car, it’s 100% genuine.

3. E-Golf performance and city life

Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Getting back into the city and leaning on the nearby Cooper Square charging station, we got a full charge on the third day by leaving the car overnight and keeping it plugged in for 6 hours, 18 minutes. (Charging fee $9.20, Icon parking fee $34.) Feeling cocky and seeing 118 miles on the gauge, we headed back to Long Island to check out secluded Shu Swamp near Roslyn.

Long Island adventures were one thing, but operating the e-Golf in the city felt right. Easy to park and quick to jump past traffic with its compact frame and 199 pound-feet of torque, this little VW’s performance is city-friendly. We got the feeling this car was how electric city vehicles were meant to be engineered. The e-Golf’s responsive handling delivers in nightmarish Manhattan travel, if you choose to travel in such circumstances.

Thinking beyond Gotham’s center, we could see this car working for families out in the boroughs who want to go electric while having access to a home charger. You could get by with 83 miles (more or less) for day trips to the Rockaways and even further into Long Island while getting your fill of Brooklyn and Queens.

To keep a light footprint and maintain solid mobility, car-sharing services like ZipCar or regular rentals could act as a support system for your e-Golf. However, this car is not made for living in Manhattan unless you have a charger at home. (The sentiment holds for just about any EV.) In the entire New York metro area, we got wind of just one DC fast charging station, located in Times Square (50 W. 44th St.). Because of the inconvenience of going into the belly of New York’s traffic beast, we didn’t even bother with fast-charge experiments on this test.

Source: Volkswagen

Negatives in our test were limited to tech issues with the e-Golf’s Park Distance Control that had been activated prior to delivery. While the safety feature’s mechanical whine was irritating when parallel-parking in the city, the system can be disabled (or avoided altogether as an option). The e-Golf also does not move if the driver’s seat belt is not buckled. This safety-first feature is great for parents worried about teen drivers but more of an annoyance if you’re just moving your car a few feet in the driveway.

Otherwise, our time in the e-Golf was hassle-free and pleasant. Volkswagen and BMW are teaming up with Chargepoint to build more fast-charging stations along the East Coast, and you can see how essential this element is to the adoption of EVs. New York is not there yet, which is a shame because the electric cars on the market do great work in emissions reductions. Replace some taxis or Ubers with e-Golfs and watch the pollution levels drop overnight.

Progress on this level won’t happen anytime soon, but it certainly could. It takes government action combined with investments from private enterprise for it to go through. When New York politicians and businesses cry impossible, just direct them to the success of California’s EV program. New York has a lot to learn from our West Coast friends in this regard.

[Update 09/28/15: The original version of this article inaccurately connected tech issues to Park Assist during the test. Park Assist is not available in the 2015 e-Golf. These issues were with the Park Distance Control feature that had been activated prior to delivery.]

Disclosure: Volkswagen USA provided Autos Cheat Sheet with a 2015 e-Golf for the three-day test with pickup and delivery of the vehicle included.

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