VW Isn’t Done with the Internal-Combustion Engine Yet

The German company will use a diverse mix of powertrain options as it moves toward its EV future.

VW recently announced an $800 million expansion of its North American plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in order to build EVs there, a move that will involve the hiring of 1000 additional workers. Indeed, having burned itself badly promoting "clean" diesel, Volkswagen hopes to become a world leader in electric cars and battery technology. But that doesn't mean it's giving up on the internal-combustion engine, explained Dr. Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, a senior VP and the chief engineering officer for Volkswagen in North America.

"As we are selling more than 10 million cars per year, we can afford more than one technology." A lot of faith, he explained, has been placed in the corporate EA211 gasoline engine family, already on sale in 1.4-liter TSI form in the new Jetta. Using the Miller combustion cycle—which sees intake valves held open during part of the compression stroke—it makes 147 horsepower and a healthy 184 lb-ft of torque in that car, yet delivers a quite respectable 40-mpg EPA highway rating.

The EA211 uses a lot of other tricks to achieve maximum efficiency, and will use more, Demmelbauer-Ebner ventured, including (in Europe) cylinder deactivation and variable-geometry turbines. A relatively high, 10:1 compression ratio helps for an engine that will run merrily on regular 87-octane gasoline, while the cylinder liners are coated in plasma to reduce friction. Larger and more powerful versions are being explored, while Volkswagen's venerable VR6 soldiers on. Now boasting 3.6 liters of capacity and having been frequently tweaked over the course of a 28-year-life by engineers, the narrow-angle six's high, 90-percent take rate in the Atlas SUV in the U.S. (where a four is also available) is mirrored in Europe, where, somewhat surprisingly, it's popular in SUV applications.

Like most volume manufacturers today, Volkswagen foresees a diverse menu of powertrain technologies for the near- and mid-term future even as it says the next generation of gasoline engines will be its last. For reasons we think we can imagine, its executives didn't tarry a nonce sharing their current thinking on diesel technology. But hybrids—standard, mild and plug-in—are very much on the table going forward, along with full battery electrics and ever-improved internal-combustion engines. Demmelbauer-Ebner confessed that plug-in hybrids, which cost the manufacturer almost twice as much as ordinary hybrid systems to install, are not yet particularly popular with consumers, most of whom bridle at the thought of plugging in when it will only provide them with 25 all-electric miles. But once the company achieves 50 miles in range, Volkswagen believes that "people are more willing to plug it in."

For his part, VW's Matthew Renna, vice president for e-mobility and innovation, explored the development of the company's in-house electric-car program. Major investment in battery systems, modules, and cells, along with a new electric-vehicle-specific platform will improve range, safety, and battery life, he said, and will become major VW core competencies as the company passes through the stages of understanding the technology, assembling its technologies to work, and finally readying them for production. He said the company aims to be utilizing solid-state batteries by the end of the 2020s, possibly of its own construction, but remains open to different electrode materials and business models. For VW applications, the decision has been made to ditch cylindrical cells in favor of rectangular ones. "They provide a lot of packaging, manage very high energy density, and for us, with the scale effect that we bring to these types of cell form factors, we get a really competitive price."

At its Center of Excellence in Salzgitter, Germany, VW is busy developing its own scalable platforms for the BEVs that will use these them. With purpose-built, flat floors capable of holding more cells than gas-car spinoffs, vehicle range rises, with in excess of 200 miles made easy versus the 125-mile range quoted for EVs based on the fossil-fuel-focused MQB platform that underlies many of Volkswagen's current vehicles, including its electric cars. The additional space is crucial not just to adding battery capacity but it enables easier cooling of batteries with liquid, allowing them to be charged more quickly. Greater scalability aside, it also makes for easier installation, and simple adaptation to work with both two- and four-wheel-drive systems. "We have a progression of knowledge that we're taking throughout the company."

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