By Fordham, John | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Fordham, John, The Independent (London, England)

I'VE DRIVEN plenty of cars that cut out every time they stop at a traffic light. Since none of them cost more than pounds 500, the cacophony of hooting and abuse from drivers behind almost seemed worth it.

The last car I drove was different. It cut out not just at every traffic light and roundabout, but even when going downhill - and it cost pounds 11,500, which could have bought 20 or 30 of my old bangers.

The car in question was the Volkswagen Golf Ecomatic, an attempt at a green car that goes a good deal further ecologically than most other vehicles on the road. It cuts out at all stops longer than one-and-a-half seconds, and on the downhill overrun, but restarts at the gentlest touch of the throttle. Until you get used to it, this can be disconcerting. All those miserable moments stalled in a jam come flooding back, and hearing the starter churn while cornering or advancing across a frantic roundabout goes against every driver's instinct. For most, being in control means having power at all times.

The Ecomatic's engine is an adapted Golf diesel, connected to the gearbox by a clutchless drive: when the revs drop as the accelerator is released, the gears are automatically disengaged. The cut-out mechanism is disabled in reverse to make slow manoeuvring easier, and can be over-ridden by a button on the wiper stalk - so the car can be driven more urgently, with more conventional use of the gearbox, if needed. Moreover, everything works - lights, brakes, power steering and heating - even when the engine is dead. There's even an auxiliary battery to stop the lights flickering when the starter turns.

So what are the drawbacks? To begin with, ecological driving and enjoyable driving are not the same thing. Quickish A-road spins are limited in appeal by the lack of engine braking, and the difficulty in keeping the revs up for gear changes. There's also an admonishing orange light when you're in a higher, unecological rev band.

The Ecomatic is a fascinating innovation, a sharp reminder of how much of the time engines are burning up fuel when going nowhere.

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