Fires are burning in every corner of the Volkswagen empire in the aftermath of the automaker’s diesel-fueled foul-up. With a shift toward electromobility and digitalization comes an urgent need to adapt traditional skills and structures to meet new challenges. Can VW overcome outdated infrastructure, patchy expertise, and a mixed bag of seasoned veterans and ambitious whippersnappers who all too often agree to disagree?
We peeked behind the walls of this new empire when we spent a couple of days in the South African Kalahari Desert with Frank Welsch, board member and VW’s new product chief, plus a few of his colleagues and five preproduction prototype vehicles, two of which we can’t tell you about yet. The readout in the camouflaged Volkswagen Arteon — the successor to the CC — reads 106 degrees, hot enough to fry eggs on the hood or burn your skin on exposed metal. The terrain is almost exclusively sand and rocks with sparse vegetation due to cyclical high-temperature, low-humidity conditions. VW uses a cordoned-off private facility “where the security men first shoot, then ask” to do torturous tests on a variety of vehicle systems, and the only rule is that you drink a bottle of water every 30 minutes.
The low and sleek Arteon five-door luxury coupe due next summer will spawn the first of two plug-in hybrids and could also be available with a 408-hp engine, according to Elmar-Marius Licharz, who is in charge of every VW model bigger than a Golf or Jetta. “In addition, we are considering a truly beautiful shooting brake,” he says. The Up GTI is a more convincing effort than the Arteon. Priced below 20,000 euros (about $20,800), this little 115-hp runabout will eclipse the original 110-hp Golf GTI in terms of performance and fuel economy. Then there’s the long-wheelbase Tiguan, badged Allspace in Europe because its longer wheelbase allows for an optional third row of seats. When we stop for lunch, the conversation focuses on future powertrains.
“There are four basic elements to electrification at Volkswagen,” Welsch says. “Mild hybrids are just around the corner, cordless hybrid-electric vehicles will follow, plug-in hybrids are here to stay, and then there is, of course, the exciting modular electric matrix known as MEB. The first MEB derivative, a global compact hatchback modeled after the I.D. show car, will launch in 2019.”
Various suppliers say VW will introduce mild hybrid systems as standard equipment starting late next year, using common componentry like a small 0.2- to 0.4-kWh battery, a belt-driven starter-generator, and an electric motor good for 8 to 15 kW of power. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids will pop up here and there as Volkswagen prepares to launch its MEB-based zero-emissions vehicles, with five I.D. models slated for production: the I.D. Hatchback that debuted at the Paris show, the I.D. Buzz unveiled at the Detroit show, the CUVe five-seat crossover earmarked for Frankfurt, the CUVe XL seven-seat crossover to be shown in Shanghai, and the Aero, a premium sedan concept that should bow in 2018.
“The New automotive world calls for advanced digital business models, inexpensive autonomous concepts, and promising technologies.”
Other MEB spin-offs are said to include the Roadster, which would eventually replace the Scirocco, and a retro-looking, rear-motor Beetle, but those aren’t confirmed. MEB is dimensionally capable of meeting all of the VW brand’s needs, but either Audi or Porsche or both will be commissioned to engineer a larger zero-emissions architecture called PEB (P stands for premium) for the group’s higher-end marques.
When MEB makes its first production appearance in 2019, the VW portfolio we know will begin to shrink. SUVs will remain the flavor of the decade, with coupe versions of the Atlas and Tiguan in the making, and new models, such as a resurrected Vanagon, will embrace hybrid and electric powertrain tech as existing product model lines merge and open space for the forward-thinking cars in the I.D. line. Brand chief Herbert Diess intends to concentrate VW’s efforts around less sophisticated, more affordable architectures, such as MQB and MEB. Adds Welsch, “Looking ahead, we must reduce proliferation, concentrate on profitable products and on growing market segments. There is still a lot of life left in MQB, and MEB is taking shape nicely. But the new automotive world also calls for advanced digital business models, inexpensive autonomous driving concepts, and potentially promising technologies, like the fuel cell. There is no doubt about it: Your father’s Volkswagen will soon be history.”