As it stands today, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are little more than loss-making goodwill devices. But as major markets continue to tighten emissions regulations and begin to mandate alternative propulsion vehicles, experts are predicting that by 2050 only about 10 percent of all-new cars will be powered by an internal combustion engine alone.
So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Germany’s automakers are investing billions into developing the next generation of BEVs. Never mind that a well-integrated charging infrastructure is a long way from reality, range anxiety is still all too real, and sales of fully electrified vehicles remain flat.
Within the Volkswagen Group, Audi, Porsche, and VW are all actively pursuing BEV projects. Right now, the group has two new BEVs officially in the works (Audi Q6 e-tron and Porsche Mission E) and one already on the road (e-Golf).
Additionally, VW is mulling six vastly different proposals for future BEV-specific models, including an electric New Beetle with a daring, modern design and half a dozen familiar cues; a one-box that might look like a microbus or a sporty spaceliner with three rows of seats; a compact crossover twinned with the forthcoming plug-in Audi Q4 e-tron; a stylish four-door sedan; a two-seat sports car with an uncommonly small frontal area and a sub-0.20 drag coefficient; or a minimalist, modular semi-autonomous city car.
As to what platform will underpin these vehicles, VW announced recently—and perhaps prematurely—that work has begun on a bespoke BEV components set dubbed MEB, an evolution of the MQB platform under the e-Golf. But potential budget issues in the wake of the diesel emissions scandal could force VW to reconsider the feasibility of that project.
Instead, the automaker might decide to develop one modular structure for high- and low-floor applications that could serve the entire VW Group and save on cost. Presumably, anything from high-end BEV variants of coming vehicles such as the Audi A9 (shown above in our rendering) and Bentley’s crossover positioned below the Bentayga to more consumer-friendly compact BEVs could use the more flexible platform.
Meanwhile, in Munich, BMW is prepping a more powerful battery for its i3, which is expected later this year. A face-lift of the i3 is in the works for 2018; an all-new model is not expected until 2021. The i8 is scheduled for a midcycle refresh in 2019 with the replacement due in 2022 at the earliest. (A high-performance i8 variant combining a turbocharged straight-six with one or two electric motors is rumored as well.) While carbon fiber will remain an all-important material of choice for the next-gen cars, steel, composites, and aluminum are going to see a bigger share of the action in an effort to reduce material and assembly costs.
Earmarked for mid-2020 is project iX, which we’ve mentioned previously as i5. The third i-car has molted more than a snake, starting off life as a bigger i3 before becoming a minivan of sorts and then a sedanette with a stubby rear end. Now it’s a four-door hatchback with subtle SUV elements — bigger narrow-width wheels, additional contrasting cladding, and a less androgynous design — and a steel-intensive architecture. The underpinnings of the BMW i5 (our rendering is below) are known internally as FSAR, short for flat battery storage assembly, and are related to the standard rear-wheel-drive modular system, CLAR, so that multiple vehicle architectures can be channeled through the same factory. FSAR and CLAR will soon share more powerful software technologies such as Ethernet and faster 5G mobile telecommunications — prerequisite for fully autonomous driving.
Like Audi and BMW, Mercedes has mapped out various ways to make BEV production easier to implement, less cost-intensive, and quicker to realize. For example, the ELC (due in 2018) is a mildly restyled GLC featuring an under-floor power pack and two electric motors that enable torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. Then the GLA-based ELA should see the light in 2020 or 2021 before we get all-electric variants of the B-Class and all-new GLB (think smaller scale G-model).
Mercedes’ dedicated electric vehicle architecture, EVA2, won’t debut until 2021.
When it does, it will have a high degree of modularity and impressive innovations. The aluminum-intensive spaceframe will be fully flexible in length, width, height, track, and wheelbase. Minimum ground clearance will be about 4.5 inches, with further adjustments through a standard air suspension. A low center of gravity will aid vehicle dynamics and also allow for a smaller frontal area with a super-efficient drag figure. In its most basic form, EVA is rear-wheel drive only, but many derivatives will boast two motors and thus all-wheel drive. Notable assets include a radically tight turning circle, rear-wheel steering, and adaptive aerodynamics.
Mercedes intends to launch four EVA2 models out of the gate: two crossovers and two sedans. The SUVs will be positioned between the GLC and GLE and the GLE and GLS, respectively. The smaller four-door splits the C- and E-Class, while the bigger model aims at the gap between the E- and S-Class. Product planning intends to offer five different power stages ranging from 160 kW to an AMG model at a remarkable 440 kW. The real-life driving range reportedly stretches from 260 miles for the AMG car to more than 400 miles for the base product.
According to those in the know, EVA2 models will be no more expensive than comparable gas or diesel models. Comments a marketing manager from Stuttgart: “Incentives may help to kick-start the BEV. But at the end of the day, it’s the product that must convince the customer. Our research tells us that in 15 years’ time 65 percent of the car buying population will consider a BEV. Today, that number is below 5 percent.”