As the rise of environmental concerns have gathered pace over the past few years, stop-start technology and energy recovery systems are now commonplace in most modern cars. But, in 1994, it was a very different story.
Following the stop-start system-equipped Formel E models of the early 1980s, Volkswagen sought to bring back the environmentally-conscious car with a special technology-laden version of the humdrum Golf. The Ecomatic.
Not familiar with the name? You’d be forgiven for not remembering it, or not even being aware of it in the first place. The Golf Ecomatic was launched in July 1994 and was technologically advanced for its time. The name was an amalgamation of ‘economical’ and ‘automatic’.
Featuring a 1.9-litre 64bhp normally-aspirated diesel engine, the Golf Ecomatic was fitted with a semi-automatic gearbox which decoupled the engine when pressure from the accelerator pedal was reduced.
Clever. And confusing.
Simply put, Volkswagen compared the idea to the principal of a cyclist who only pedals when power is needed. So, in the Ecomatic the engine cut out when the accelerator pedal was lifted, but sprung back to life when the pedal was pressed again.
Reducing both fuel consumption figures as well as emissions, it followed on from those more environmentally-sound Polos, Golfs, Jettas and Passats of the 1980s, bringing the concept up-to-date for the contemporary age.
How clean was it?
Volkswagen claimed that the Golf Ecomatic drivers would benefit from a 22 per cent improvement in fuel consumption when compared to a standard Golf with the same engine (61.4mpg vs 43.5mpg respectively) and a 22 per cent drop in CO2 emissions. The company also claimed that with familiarity, savings of up to a 30 per cent could be achieved in urban driving situations.
H2 and NOx emissions were reduced by 25 per cent, and particulate emissions also fell by 11 per cent. Engine operating time was also reduced by around 60 per cent. The Ecomatic was also the first VW which could run on rape seed biodiesel with no adjustment thanks to hardened seals in the fuel system.
What’s it like today?
Driving the Golf Ecomatic today, the technology seems rather rudimentary (even more so when you’ve spent the morning in an electrically-powered car). Equipped with a five-speed manual gearbox yet no clutch pedal, at first the Golf Ecomatic feels both old and plain odd. And very, very noisy.
With the gear lever in neutral, a turn of the ignition key starts the engine in the usual way. To move away, engage first gear and press the accelerator. From then on, gear changes are made by removing your feet from the accelerator and slotting the gear lever into the selected ratio.
Sounds easy enough.
Once on the move, when you’ve become accustomed to changing gear without a third pedal, the Ecomatic is as easy to drive as a standard Mk 3 Golf. It’s never fast, and you have to prod the accelerator rather hard to make anything happen, but it does make you think.
Think about when you’re going to disengage the engine at motorway speeds, or think about when is the right time to coast the car to a half.
Yes, it is odd having the engine disengage at motorway speeds and the car coast along for long-ish distances, but with an extra large 92Ah battery and 90 amp alternator, Volkswagen ensured that the braking and electric systems remained fully functional.
(A second smaller battery ensured that the external lights didn’t flicker when the Ecomatic was restarted at night.)
Any snags or glitches?
The lack of a clutch pedal occasionally catches you out at roundabouts and road junctions, but it’s just a case of remembering what to do to make the system work. And when it does, it’s a very smooth and well-thought out operation.
A button at the end of the wiper stalk (just as in the Formel Es a decade earlier) switches the ‘Digi-Swing’ decoupling engine control unit off and also enables permanent engine braking. Warning lights in the dashboard inform you that the system is active or switched off.
An orange gear change light also illuminates for the best fuel economy – another nod to the earlier fuel-sipping VWs and one feature which has also survived the transition through the decades to become a defining feature of a model range’s most economic version.
What was the price?
The £11,495 Ecomatic was based on the Golf L, enabling Volkswagen UK to bring the car to market at the lowest possible price. Standard equipment included power steering, a five-speed gearbox, removable Sony radio cassette, a folding rear seat and a pollen filter. Not exactly high-tech stuff.
The Golf Ecomatic is a fascinating insight into an early form of green motoring. Now, as a historical document, it’s a fascinating insight into what could have been. Volkswagen UK intended to sell around 1,000 examples to several major organisations.
How many were sold?
In the end, just over a tenth of that volume was achieved. Is that because, just as with the Audi A2, it was a car ahead of its time or because drivers of the mid-1990s just couldn’t understand Volkswagen’s self-billed ‘New Concept in Motoring’?
Whatever the reason, the Golf Ecomatic’s role was arguably a pivotal one. Following the pioneering Formel E Volkswagens of the 1980s and spawning the BlueMotion models which were born in the late 2000s, the Golf Ecomatic is a long-forgotten but important milestone in Volkswagen’s environmental development path.