Volkswagen Group’s mother brand began losing luster, character, and desirability long before its diesel disaster. Dictatorial cutline fetishists led to anonymous designs, Wolfsburg decision-makers overlooked the digital mindset supported elsewhere in the industry, and VW’s cold and technocratic brand image, cultivated by nuts-and-bolts leadership, flopped in the marketplace. Emotion took a back seat, and innovation remained a purely engineering-driven thing. As electromobility becomes more accepted and unexceptional, though, the groggy giant has gotten an unexpected opportunity to reinvent itself.
“One of our key strategic goals is to develop a fully digital and autonomous [battery electric vehicle] portfolio,” says sales and marketing chief Jürgen Stackmann. “VW will continue to offer the very best of German engineering, but we are also going to put a much greater emphasis on sustainability, new mobility solutions, intuitive ergonomics, and the opportunities of connectivity.” One of the key tools VW executives will use to refloat the big old steamer is the new modular electric components set codenamed MEB. This fully flexible architecture will underpin vehicles targeting millennials (age 17-38) and Generation Z (17 and younger), as well as the more affluent Generation X (age 39-50) and the even more prosperous former baby boomers (age 51-69). Stackmann says, “Irrespective of age and gender, MEB addresses a clientele which embraces new visions implemented with the help of truly relevant technologies.”
According to the preliminary timetable, VW will present no fewer than seven MEB-based concept cars between October 2016 and October 2018:
- NUVe debuts at this year’s Paris auto show in late September. The “New Urban Vehicle” is a fully connected, zero-emission city car. At least half a size bigger than the BMW i3, this specifically urban interpretation of MEB will be made almost entirely of steel, not carbon fiber or aluminum. After all, the new brand-shaper must be priced in close vicinity to a four-door Golf TDI 4Motion with a DSG transmission when it goes on sale in 2020 or 2021.
- The e-Golf will be offered alongside the NUVe, and the two will share a footprint but little else. The e-Golf will be the smallest MEB derivative but should be almost as roomy as a Passat.
- An electric CUV, A+, should bow at the Detroit auto show in January 2017. Like NUVe, the battery-powered SUV will be fully prepared for cordless charging. The A+ will have a relatively long wheelbase, three rows of seats, and enough space for seven. Those who have seen early proposals describe it as a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) with a coupe roofline and strong SUV overtones—a real crossover, by the sound of it. Low-mounted battery trays will be positioned between the axles, ahead of the e-motor propelling the rear wheels. Although all-wheel drive is a possibility, the second motor would add weight and require additional energy cells, so Audi and e-Quattro will likely pave this way for VW. Expect automated parking, autonomous driving at speeds up to 80 mph, and a more advanced interaction with other road users.
- The regular “A” electric CUV will be one of the highlights of the September 2017 Frankfurt show. About a foot shorter than its A+ sibling, the smaller planet-saver is a much sportier vehicle boasting all-wheel drive, a 300-hp power pack, and performance batteries. This sexy five-seater will be shaped along the lines of an all-new model that Range Rover will soon use to plug the gap between the Evoque and Range Rover Sport. Subtitled “Cross Emotion Concept,” the Tiguan-size coupe utility vehicle will fuse elegance and functionality, use adaptive aerodynamics in combination with ride-height adjustment, and boast signature LED headlights and OLED taillights.
- X-BEV is earmarked for the April 2017 Shanghai show. This high-end Volkswagen effectively replaces the discontinued Phaeton that once was the darling of the Chinese upper class. X denotes the car’s crossover ambitions, but this is actually more like the comfort-oriented luxury version of the new Audi Q e-tron. In contrast to its more compact siblings, the X-BEV due in 2019 fuses space-efficient MEB genes with the DNA of the more generous MLB architecture. Perhaps the most intriguing trait is the lounge concept chosen for the vast interior, offering free seating in just about any conceivable configuration.
- The Aero due in January 2018 combines a small frontal area and a very low drag coefficient for industry-leading aerodynamics. Think of it as a full-length, four-door, five-passenger XL1, and you’re almost there. But unlike the uncomfortably tight XL1, the Aero is reportedly as roomy inside as the current Jetta. The Aero’s center of gravity sits exceptionally close to the ground, the rear wheelhouses carry partial fairings, and the drag-cutting aids on the nose and tail work in tandem. According to sources in Wolfsburg, the luxurious long-distance GT will be positioned as a more efficient Tesla Model S rival with three available power packs and a maximum driving range of up to 375 miles.
- The e-roadster is planned for debut at the March 2018 Geneva show. Like the Aero, the surprisingly small two-seater must do exceptionally well in the drag sweepstakes. Means to this end include a low-flying tapered nose, small cooling apertures for the batteries and the rear-mounted motor, a flush underside, fixed upper and lower rear air dams, large-diameter wheels shod with relatively narrow tires, and a steeply raked windscreen to which one can attach a simple canvas top. The e-roadster is reminiscent of the stillborn VW Mimo project that management shot down in 2009. This could be the world’s first truly CO2-neutral sports car.
- The e-Bulli microbus should show up at the September/October 2018 Paris show. This will be VW’s fourth attempt to reinvent the iconic microbus that has yet to strike a credible compromise between retro and contemporary. Derived from the very same MEB matrix as the rest of the range, the scalable high-roof BEV could cover the full spectrum from noiseless city van to a high-end private coach for four. Fresh touches to the Bulli theme include a walk-through cabin, portal-type side-hinged doors, fully flexible seating, and advanced voice control. If the e-Bulli is well enough received by main markets, it might be the starting point for a lineup of new-school, old-style, clean-air models like an e-Beetle.
Although all MEB-based VWs have been shaped by Klaus Bischoff and his team—a consistent design theme includes a contrasting roof, C-pillars split at the base, and a double-kink lower window line—rumor has it that Jozef Kabaň is moving from Skoda to northern Germany to become the marque’s new creative director.
Since MEB is flexible in length, wheelbase, width, and depth, there is no need for a bespoke high-floor CUV/SUV application. Standardized items include axles, drive units, and the human-machine interface platform. VW is preparing its MEB architecture for 100-, 200-, and 400-volt docking stations. In terms of battery technology, e-motors, modular electronics, and transmission technology, VW is seeking affordable, large-scale solutions and plans to produce almost all drivetrain elements in-house. This may not be the most economical approach, seeing how VW expects to build 1 million BEVs per year by 2025, but it should keep the unions happy and sure helps VW catch up with the rest of the world in terms of know-how and component integration.
All power and torque figures are tentative, seeing how the first MEB-based production model is still about four years away, but the BEV powertrain portfolio stretches from a single 60kW unit to two 85kW motors paired with one 60kW element for a maximum grand total of 230kW (308 hp). The strongest transmission can handle up to 270Nm (200 lb-ft of torque). Segmentation will not only be by power and torque, but also by driving range. Here, the three relevant (and highly price-sensitive) thresholds are 200, 300, and 400 miles on a single charge.
With MEB and the BEVs built on it, VW hopes to address future customer requirements, the needs of mobility providers such as Uber and Lyft, and bespoke mobility solutions and transportation services supported by its new partner Gett. “I am confident that our take on electromobility is going to increase the public awareness of things done right,” Stackmann says. “With MEB, VW is in a strong position to defend the middle ground one level below premium. Make no mistake: We still treasure the values of the traditional world like driving pleasure, but at the same time we embrace the qualities of the postmodern world like urban mobility and digitalization.”
This brave new electric world could bolster VW’s tarnished brand image, helping the automaker become friendlier, purer, and more modern, but the products and the infrastructure required for them are still in their infancy. While VW Group boss Matthias Müller’s predecessors did not handle the combustion principle of Rudolf Diesel as well as they should have, Thomas Edison’s findings may well give Volkswagen a second chance.