A Look Back at the History of Electric Volkswagens: Golf and Jetta CityStromers

4 years ago by Eric Loveday 4


Lately, Volkswagen has been hard at work spreading the word of its electric vehicle “bold offensive.”

VW e-Up!

VW e-Up!

While we do sort of chuckle when we hear the words “Volkswagen” and “electric vehicle” in the same sentence, we can’t help but wonder what would have been if VW stuck to its original “bold offensive” for EVs launched way back when.

Back in 1976, VW first dabbled with electric vehicles by dropping a battery pack in the first-generation Golf.

Later, VW got serious with the 1988 Jetta CityStromer.  This electric featured a 26-kWh sodium-sulphur battery pack, which provided up to 75 miles of range.  Top speed was listed at 65 mph.

Various other iterations followed, including the 1992 Golf Mk2 CityStromer and 1994 Golf Mk3 CityStromer.  Both of these vehicles made do with lesser lead-gel batteries, which result in less range than the Jetta CityStromer and a reduced top speed.

Volkswagen e-Golf

Volkswagen e-Golf

All of VW’s early electric vehicles were low volume and never intended for sale to the public, but as we can see from as far back as 1976, VW was into electrics.  Following the departure of the Golf MK3 CityStromer, Volkswagen went lights out on electric vehicles.

Now, VW is trying to reignite the spark.  Both the VW e-Up! and e-Golf are pure electric vehicle that will launch to international audiences (e-Up! is not US-bound though) and are part of the automaker’sbold offensive.”

VW needs this “bold offensive” to catch up on the competition, most of which is now years ahead of the German automaker.  But had VW stuck with and advanced its early work on electrics, wouldn’t the automaker be near the lead today?

This “bold offensive” is a response to decades of forgetting the electric.  VW had a chance to lead the way, but in extinguishing its early EV program, the German automaker now sits near the bottom of the pack and faces a long climb to get back to the top.

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4 responses to "A Look Back at the History of Electric Volkswagens: Golf and Jetta CityStromers"

  1. David Stone says:

    I would not say a long climb from a technology perspective; they have the experience and the resources.
    The long climb only applies to the mentality department.

    Either they are serious and it will happen, or they are not.

  2. Cavaron says:

    So the first Jetta EV from 1988 had, what the i-MiEV has now – about 75miles of range. “VW had a chance to lead the way” – indeed.

  3. Ocean Railroader says:

    This car has 75 mile of range in the 1980’s and now they have only 80 miles of range even now in the 2013 I’m somewhat dumb in that we should have at least 150 by now.

  4. Brad B says:

    I also think that VW would have been a leader today had there been any way for them to continue to sell those City Stromers. My wife and I were married In 1981 and because gas was $1.43 a gallon we decided to buy one of the earliest Diesel Jetta’s as our first new car. Many car companies were dabbling in electrics back then because of the high fuel prices in the early 80’s. The price would be equivalent to $6.00 a gallon today. My Jetta got 49 life time average MPG in its 300k miles of life. In 84, I read that VW was working on an electric car. Then they came out with the prototype MK II Jeta in 86. I was impressed at the range they could get compared to most of the other electric prototypes of the day. Almost all others used some form of lead acid battery, and as mentioned in your article, VW used a sodium sulfur battery. I thought that was really cool and I wanted one and hoped they would produce it. My Jetta could get to 60 in a blistering 16 seconds and had a top speed of about 80. I figured I could live with the lower top speed of about 65 mph and 0 to 60 in about 18 secounds In the electric Jetta. That’s because the entire US maximum speed limit at the time was 55 mph. At the time it would cost me 50 cents to fill the car with electricity and my commute would cost about a quarter a day. That was one fourth of what my already cheap to drive Jetta diesel could do. But, alas, they never built them for sale there let alone here. The latter lead acid electric Golfs were sold to German utilities and then sold to private parties used, but if I remember correctly they were like $35k each new, when a diesel golf was $12k and the elctrics were far less capable in range and power than the E-Jetta. I considered converting my Jetta in 1988 to home brew electric, as there were a number of VW Rabbit conversion kits available and we even drove several electric Rabbits that had been converted back then. My wife and I loved them. But life has a way of intervening sometimes and we never did the conversion.

    VW was by no means alone in their abandonment of electric mobility all those years ago. In fact they did more than most, producing and selling them for several years. All car companies abandoned electrics on the basis that there was simply insufficient demand for the price they had to sell them for in the 80’s. Publicly traded companies very rarely are able to justify the expense of “the long term View”. Imagine where GM would be today if they had taken the long term view and kept producing the EV1 and other EV’s. They would be way ahead of everyone today. That car with Nickle Metal Hydride batteries had double the range of any other CARB compliant car of the day. GM could have had the R&D paid for and would have had a 200 mile car by now. There would be at least tens of thousands of them on the road now and GM would have been able to claim the “Toyota Prius” of Pure electrics. But GM was not only short sighted but totally malevolent by taking almost all of those cars, many by legal force and crushing them. Not to mention selling off Ovonic batteries and guaranteeing that no one could produce EV’s using that battery technology. The company they sold Ovonic too, had to agree not produce any large scale cells for cars. Only small cells could be produced. Even so, Toyota took advantage of that technology when they produced the very small battery in the Prius from those same small nickle hydride cells. It was the crushing of those cars by GM and the resulting vigils and the passionate demonstrations at the storage lots as they did so, that sewed the seeds of the fear GM has today of being left in the dust by Elon and Tesla in the pure electric world . Elon started Tesla because of what happened to the EV1. Tesla would never have happened if GM had not stopped production, and crushed those cars. Elon saw people willing to do almost anything to save a product, a GM product no less, and knew there was business to be had in pure electrics. Tesla is literally GM’s fault.

    I would not condemn VW too much since they have taken a very practical approach to producing EV’s. Instead of putting out 1 EV like most manufacturers have, VW has spent the last three years building a factory infrastructure and production capacity, to build right now, if they saw the market, 40 different EV models. They basically have modularized every model line so they can build gas, deisel, CNG, hybrid and pure electric concurrently on each productiion line into any of their cars based on demand. No other car manufacturer could currently come close to this capability. This will ultimately make it so that VW electrics can be produced very inexpensively. And once VW realizes that no one with buy them at the ridiculous price of there first offerings, they should get down to brass tacks and sell them cheap because they can. The beauty of their idea is that battery tech will in the next 3 to 5 years will make it so that you will be able to buy a 200 mile VW pretty cheap and they will be well positioned to sell lots of them at a reasonable price. That is why you have been hearing them bluster as they have. They can vary the mix of drive-trains upon demand. The only problem that I see with this approach is that since no vehicle they produce will be optimized for electric drive, they will never be leader of the pack as far as performance, handling or range for their EV’s are concerned. But I’ll bet that they will be one of the best bang for the buck electrics 5 years from now. In the next few years they will offer a number of electrics just to get their feet wet and to get to be known as a producer electrics. But their mass production strategy is for the next gen batteries to make their EV range 200 to 250 mile with out building purpose built cars. Just slap the EV module in as demand requires in what ever model is wanted. I think that is sort of a “just in time” business model, and I think they will do well with it ultimately.

    As for me, I will buy some sort of Tesla. I want a Model X 4 wheel drive but probably cant afford it. Maybe a Gen III small SUV with 4 wheel drive. I have driven Subaru’s for the last 18 years and will never go back to two wheel drive. When I bought my Forester XT in 04 I said then to my wife, I would never buy another gas car, or one with less performance than that Forester (0 to 60 in 5.3 seconds) and she agreed. So far the Tesla products are the only electric cars that can better the performance at a tolerable cost but they don’t have 4 wheel drive yet. The Mercedes SLS AMG E has every thing except the range and the price. A quarter mil is way to much for me, so I will Just wait until Tesla produces the right car and I’ll buy one. These Subaru’s go any where and go forever, so I can wait patiently. Though I have been toying with converting my wifes 96 Outback to electric ;^)