Automobiles: VW's big plans: A Beetle for the electric-car era


Volkswagen is laying out a bold plan to bring electric vehicles to the masses with dozens of new models and unprecedented driving ranges, challenging other carmakers to keep pace a year after the emissions scandal rocked the German automaker.

The process will get a boost at the Paris car show today , when the company will unveil the I.D. concept car, a battery-powered hatchback that boasts a range almost twice as far as Tesla Motors Inc.'s Model 3 sedan. Rather than an offshoot of an existing model in VW's portfolio, the prototype is the company's first electric vehicle built around a unique platform, a major commitment in financial and engineering resources.

"The future is electric," Chief Executive Officer Matthias Mueller said at an event in Paris. "We are creating a new Volkswagen that is tackling the fields of future importance with determination."

The stakes are high for the company, with the scandal bleeding billions in fines and tarnishing the company's image. To emphasize the importance of the new direction, VW is likening the hatchback to groundbreaking models such as the iconic Beetle, which put it on the map around the world, and the Golf compact that propelled the manufacturer to the top of the European auto industry in the 1980s.

The September 2015 revelation of diesel-emissions manipulation forced VW to change course. The emphasis is now on new technologies such as battery power and autonomous driving rather than the diesel engines that it pushed in the U.S., where the cheating was uncovered. With that technology besmirched, diesel cars accounted for 46.8 percent of German auto sales in the first eight months of 2016, the lowest level since 2012.

Thirty electric vehicles

Instead, Volkswagen now plans to bring out 30 battery-powered cars by 2025, with the Audi luxury division targeting three by 2020. The strategy, the most aggressive in the industry, includes a target of selling as many as 3 million electric autos a year. That would be about 25 percent of its global sales, whereas IHS Markit estimates battery-powered vehicles will account for just 3 percent of worldwide demand by then.

"Volkswagen needs to finally get away from the diesel scandal that's been dominating what we hear about them," said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. "The Paris show presentation of an actual product for its electric-car strategy will be key."

The push at Volkswagen, which includes developing rapid-charging technology, is part of the industry's response to ever-tightening pollution standards. The European Union is seeking efficiency improvements in the next five years that would effectively be double the gains made since 2010. With the future of diesel technology compromised due to the Volkswagen scandal, manufacturers are now seeking to lure consumers to electric cars, which have failed to win wide popularity.


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