Just over a week ago, Dr. Herber Diess, CEO of Volkswagen Passenger Cars, took to the stage in Las Vegas to deliver a keynote presentation at CES 2016. During the keynote, Diess — who apologized several times during his presentation for the ongoing dieselgate scandal — unveiled two new vehicles that he said provided a glimpse at what Volkswagen’s future vehicle lineup could be.
Both cars — the soon-to-enter-production Volkswagen e-Golf Touch and Volkswagen BUDD-e Concept Minivan — were all-electric models, highlighting Volkswagen’s desire to distance itself from the horrors of the ongoing Dieselgate scandal as much as possible. Combine this with another concept unveiled in Detroit this week in the form of a the Volkswagen Tiguan GTE Active Concept plug-in hybrid, and it’s clear that the German automaker is trying hard to make good on its promise of investing heavily in electrified vehicles moving forward.
But with the corporate purse strings ever-tightening under the mounting fines Volkswagen is accruing for emissions noncompliance of 2.0-litre and 3.0-litre diesel engines in Europe and North America, will Volkswagen’s plug-in cars be enough to send the ghosts of dieselgate away? Will Volkswagen be able to turn itself and its reputation around in time to keep up with the fast-paced developments in the world of connected vehicles, autonomous drive and electric vehicles? And will it become an automaker that buyers trust to bring it the cleanest, greenest, safest and smartest cars it can?
Could the e-Golf Touch do it?
Before we answer that question, we think it’s worth looking at the cars unveiled at CES and Detroit and examining both the potential of those vehicles and the reactions we’ve observed online to those vehicles.
The only car unveiled recently with a confirmed production plan is the Volkswagen e-Golf Touch. An evolution of the existing Volkswagen e-Golf that uses the same gesture-based control system we saw last year at CES in the Golf R Touch concept, the e-Golf Touch certainly ticks the boxes in terms of current in-demand technology. There’s a larger, more capable touch-screen display with gesture control system, a new dashboard, voice-control capabilities, and an always-on Internet connection with WiFi Internet sharing. Combined with a larger battery pack that is rumored to offer 30% increase in range over existing 2016 e-Golf models (which would put it on par with the 2016 Nissan LEAF SV and SL) the Volkswagen e-Golf Touch is due to enter production this year.
But while we enjoy the Volkswagen e-Golf and have given it one of our best reviews to date, Volkswagen will need to do more than just match the competition in order to win hearts and minds. It will need to beat the competition. And with the 200-mile Chevrolet Bolt EV promised to enter the market this fall with a price-tag of around $30,000 after incentives, Volkswagen will need the e-Golf Touch to retail for a low price in order to gain buyer interest.
Given its financial commitments, we’re guessing that won’t be a possibility, although we do note that the only car to increase in sales recently at VW is the e-Golf, driven in part by incredibly generous lease deals and dealer incentives designed to keep customers coming through the door. Provided you don’t mind driving a Volkswagen, there are some big deals to be had. But continuing those deals over the long term? That could be tough.
What about the BUDD-e?
If the Volkswagen e-Golf Touch won’t be up to the task, what of the BUDD-e, Volkswagen’s CES 2016 Concept minivan?
First up, we should acknowledge that the BUDD-e is a concept car pure and simple. Complete with lavish amounts of technology, autonomous everything and the kind of fully-connected technology that made it popular with gadget-savvy CES attendees, the BUDD-e is a vehicle which serves as a future goal for Volkswagen, not a car that it could bring into production today. And that’s not because of the tech per se, but because of the high-costs associated with bringing that technology to market, something which brings us back to Volkswagen’s tight purse-strings.
But while some commentators have sneered that the BUDD-e is essentially a re-hash of various VW minivan electric concept cars we’ves seen in previous years — and they have a point, at least when it comes to the look of the vehicle — others have noted that the Volkswagen BUDD-e’s tech-heavy, fully-connected interior isn’t what we should be looking at.
The all-new platform on which it is based should be.
Peel off the minivan body and high-tech interior, and you’re left with a brand-new chassis based on Volkswagen’s new Modular Electric Vehicle toolkit. Offering a next-generation 101 kilowatt-hour battery pack capable of propelling the BUDD-e 233 miles per charge on the EPA test cycle, the platform delivers power to the road via an all-wheel drive system powered by a pair of electric motors producing 100 kilowatts of power at the front and 125 kilowatts of power at the rear. Top speed is electronically limited to 112 mph, while the BUDD-e has a claimed acceleration time from 0-60 mph of 6.9 seconds.
This platform, if it performs as well in the real world as it does in the laboratory, could give Volkswagen a major advantage over some of its rivals. But as we’ve said time and time again, developing a new vehicle takes a lot of time and a lot of money. With little money spare, that’s going to be a challenge.
Or the Tiguan GTE?
The final car of the trio of vehicles to be unveiled by Volkswagen with a plug in the past two weeks is the Volkswagen Tiguan GTE Active Concept. Built to “showcase the technical capabilities of the MQB platform,” the all-wheel drive plug-in hybrid features a similar setup to the Volkswagen GTE and Audi A3 plug-in hybrids already available in certain markets around the world.
There’s a powerful turbocharged gasoline direct-injection engine up front, married to an automatic gearbox, and there’s an 85 kilowatt electric motor driving the rear wheels. Unlike existing plug-in hybrids from the Volkswagen group, there’s a second, smaller 40 kilowatt motor driving the other axle when required, allowing for all-electric all wheel drive capabilities when required.
Yet electric-only range, at an estimated 20 miles on the EPA test cycle from an on-board 12.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, won’t be enough to encourage buyers to buy it should the Tiguan GTE ever make it production, especially with plenty of other plug-ins coming to market in the next few years which will offer a longer-range in electric-only mode and all-wheel drive capabilities.
While there’s certainly still a market for such a vehicle, especially since it occupies the popular crossover market segment, we’re unconvinced a production version of the Tiguan GTE would give the Volkswagen the essential leg-up it needs to stand on an equal playing field with the rest of the automotive industry.
VW needs to adapt, be flexible…and fast
Talking to industry insiders over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a mixture of views about Volkswagen’s future, but nearly everyone we’ve spoken to believes that electric vehicles could help the automaker turn its reputation and its business around. Most believe that Volskwagen will ultimately be okay, provided it restructures itself, cuts back on some of its previously-planned projects, and becomes a leaner, more efficient company. A small minority believe Volkswagen is doomed.
On its own, the financial stresses and strains facing Volkswagen as a consequence of dieselgate are surmountable. After all, less than a decade ago the automotive industry in the U.S. was on its knees, fighting to cope with the biggest financial crisis in living memory. While the image of The Detroit Three flying to Washington D.C. in private jets to ask for Federal assistance is still a cringeworthy one, there’s no denying the automotive industry has learned some tough lessons as a part of that process.
And they’ve learned even more as a consequence of tough competition from Tesla Motors, which has not only challenged the status quo of how cars are built, sold and serviced, but challenged the way in traditional automotive design practices are followed.
Some may argue that following traditional automotive design practices actually helped bring about the dieselgate crisis. Long design cycles, complacency within the organization, poor communication and a lack of willingness to think outside the box led to a handful of engineers and their managers deciding to cheat the system rather than come up with a completely different alternative.
But the cars unveiled in CES and in Detroit show that VW is capable of much more, because the cars we’ve seen these past two weeks illustrate that at least some of Volskwagen’s engineering teams are willing to push forward with new technologies and ideas. Moreover, the vehicles we’ve seen unveiled by Volkswagen are vehicles which the company has been working on for more than the six months since the diesel gate scandal.
They have been in development a lot, lot longer.
There’s just one problem with all of this: to bring these vehicles to market, VW needs either time, resources or money. And right now, it has none of them.
The money is self-explanatory. The resources? With less money, resources will naturally be smaller. Time is short too: unless VW can bring a plug-in to market in the next two years that not only competes against the Chevrolet Bolt but actively bests it in the marketplace on either performance, specification or price, it will struggle. Wait any longer, and it will have competition from the Next-generation Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model 3.
But there’s hope. General Motors took just a year to take the Chevrolet Bolt EV from a concept car to a fully-finished pre-production engineering test car. In another ten months, the car will be in production. By auto-industry norms, that time frame represents an almost unheard of development speed.
How did GM do it? Collaboration with parts supplier LG Electronics, which helped design and will supply many of the key components in the vehicle, a process which required GM to throw away traditional automotive industry norms and design cycles, embrace rapid prototyping and think outside the box. It saved money in the process, and sped up development too.
Those are both key things for Volskwagen right now.
The BUDD-e concept, while just a fancy car to wow the audiences at CES, is built upon a brand-new platform that if specifications are correct could give Volkswagen the life-line it needs to rebrand itself.
Volkswagen just has to figure out how to build cars on that platform at a price point that buyers will love, throw away its stuffy and old-fashioned management structure, and think more like a modern software company than a car maker. If it can do that, and produce products that embrace those ideals based on the platform we already know it has, the rest will take care of itself.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.