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Volkswagen’s electric dreams after diesel nightmare

Forget the supercars and the show girls, the most important car at the recent Paris Motor Show was Volkswagen’s I.D, our man in Blighty explains why…

THE MOST talked-about car at this month’s Paris motor show wasn’t one you can actually buy. Not yet anyway. It was the Volkswagen I.D, a Golf-sized white sugarlump of an electrically driven concept car. But VW promises something very similar will hit its showrooms come 2020, at an affordable price. OK, you can take away the decoratively white-treaded tyres and a few other baubles. And the interior won’t be as jazzy as the Paris car. But you get the drift.

VW promised that when the real thing goes on sale, it will have a range of 600km on a charge (at least according to the lenient European test). That’s record-breaking. And that when the updated version comes out in 2025, a two-second finger-touch of the badge in the centre of the airbag will cause the steering wheel to retract into the dash. Then the car will drive itself.

Best of all for the headline writers, it launched against a dysfunctional backstory. A year ago the world learned Volkswagen was guilty of corporate wrongdoing on a vast scale. Since then it’s become apparent that the fraud of #dieselgate was actually a far bigger and darker matter than the company admitted, as evidenced by the parade of departing executives.

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And so Volkswagen people now want us to see its new electric strategy as a fresh start. An almost-literal wiping clean of the slate.

Like any good PR story, things aren’t so simple. The timing isn’t a sharp break from fossil fuel to electricity. VW will still be making diesels for Europe for many years to come. And it wasn’t the uncovering of the diesel fraud that prompted the VW Group to look at EVs. It was already making an electric Golf, and Audi was already working on its production electric SUV for 2018.

Dieselgate’s main effect within VW was actually to electrify the people, rather than the products. It promoted a new generation of free-thinking management who want to act faster and explore new possibilities for fresh ways of designing, building, selling and using cars.

Amid this compelling narrative of VW’s corporate absolution, we shouldn’t forget something. In the context of the competition, the I.D will actually be pretty tardy onto the market. Because duh, other electric sedans are already available. And most of the world’s carmakers are well advanced with autonomous prototypes too.

Sure the VW’s electric range sounds impressive, but remember the timing: 2020. Other long-range affordable EVs are on the way sooner than that. EVs are already taking a big chunk of the market in many parts of the world, and though Australia has been slower off the mark, suburban and city areas will lilely catch on once charging availability improves.

Tesla talks of 2017 for its Model 3. The base-spec version will likely do 400km by the same yardstick as VW is quoting. Tick some option boxes and Tesla says you can add longer range, 4WD, air suspension, and part-autonomous driving. Not to mention that Tesla signature dish, higher performance – startlingly so.

Even General Motors will be selling, a few months from now, a 500km affordable car, the Chevy Bolt. I’d guess that by 2020 they’ll have found more battery improvements that’ll take it to VW’s 600km target.

The only fly in that ointment is that the Bolt was conceived at a time when GM, emerging from bankruptcy, was too skint to prepare a RHD version. So Australia will be denied a Holden-badged Bolt for a few more years.

The list goes on. The Paris show was also the launchpad for Mercedes’ idea of its first purpose-built EV. It’s an electric crossover that – as with Tesla’s Model X – marries brave tech with timid, smoothed-off styling. They both look like half-rubbed soap-on-a-rope facsimiles of ordinary petrol crossovers.

Most of all though, long before the VW launch in 2020, Nissan’s second-generation Leaf will will be a familiar sight. You can bet it will have significant battery and range improvements over the present one. Plus autonomous capability will be engineered in if not fully enabled. And remember Nissan has thousands of existing loyal Leaf owners waiting for the new one.

Ten years ago, very few people believed battery electric cars would become mainstream. Probably only isolated bunches of engineers and financiers at Nissan and at Tesla. Then in 2010 Nissan launched the Leaf. At first only a few slightly messianic customers stepped up, but now the idea of your neighbour driving an electric car hardly bears comment. That’s how far we’ve come.

The great German technocrats at Volkswagen will no doubt make a good job of their first purpose-designed EV. But if they try to tell you it’s some sort of revolution, just ask the simple question: what kept you?


1 Comment

  1. Allen
    October 12, 2016 at 6:45 pm — Reply

    VW TDI: Very Woeful & Terribly Deceptive Initiative.

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Paul Horrell

Paul Horrell

Paul's working life has been paced out in cars. He began road-testing when the VW Golf was in its second generation. It's now in its eighth. He covers much more than the tyre-smoking part of the road-test landscape. He roots around in the financial machinations of the car corporations and the apparent voodoo of the technologies. Then he clarifies those complications so his general readers – too busy to lodge their heads up the industry's nether regions – get the fast track on what matters and what doesn't. A freelance writer living in London, he usually gets around the city by bicycle, which adds to his (sometimes justified) reputation as a bit green and a bit of a lefty. He's a member of Europe's Car of the Year jury.