On the VW I.D.’s shoulders, too, rests a wider message than just the car itself. For it is partly a distraction from the ghastly diesel fraud. The VW Group did indeed have electrification plans before dieselgate broke, but in its wake the whole lot got a literal high-voltage shock, and the decision was taken the following month to develop the MEB. MEB being the special electric-only platform on which the I.D. sits. So there you are. The I.D. isn’t only a new kind of vehicle for VW, it wants to speak of a fresh start for the company. Its bar-of-soap colour might allude to a hand-washing of past sins.
And yes, they’re going to sell the I.D. The official wording is “2020 at the latest”. “About time too” you might snort, given there will be decade-old Nissan Leafs running around by then. But by being a decade late, VW reckons it will hit the streets when demand is finally mainstream. There will be mature charging infrastructure, and the battery chemistry will have been finessed so that the car will have 600km of range. That’s 600km in today’s unrealistic test conditions, or 375 miles. Sounds good among 2016’s electric cars, but remember the Chevy Bolt/Opel Ampera-e is rated at 500km four years ahead of the VW. And four years is an age in EV technology. Methinks VW is sandbagging.
For a start, this is a super-low drag car, and drag is crucial in the EV-range game. A designer tells me that replacing the door mirrors by XL1-style lipstick cams is worth about 20 miles. Cooling openings are pared back to just what’s needed for the battery and the people, and they actively close when not required. The underfloor is flat, the glazing flush, the tyres skinny. Of course they could have made it a teardrop, like the XL1. But says design chief Klaus Bischoff, “No one buys a teardrop.” See, this car is meant to sell, big-time.
The MEB’s component layout holds no great surprises. In fact, it cleaves pretty slavishly to recent electric-car orthodoxy: flat battery pack under the floor, cylindrical motor at the axle. (I say recent – actually the concept of an electrically driven “skateboard” serving a variety of bodies goes back to GM concept cars of the Nineties, only they figured the motors would be powered up by fuel cells and the flat section would be hydrogen tanks.)
Just like the Beetle, the car that started it all for VW, the car that reboots the company also has its power unit in the back. It’s a 170bhp motor – enough, they say, for “driving enjoyment”, without giving acceleration numbers. The platform is also prepared (though not entirely ready) for autonomous driving. From 2025 or so, says VW. On the I.D. concept, you press the steering-wheel VW badge and the column retracts into the dash. The car would then take charge and you could swivel the driver’s seat to face backward and watch a movie or talk to your kids.
The I.D. is shorter than a Golf, but roomier than a Passat. Chucking out the existing driveline – engine, gearbox, exhaust, radiator and a whole lot more – leaves extra space for people. The air-conditioner has moved forward to the space vacated by an engine, so the dash goes 200mm forward. The windscreen goes with it, which is why it ends up with such distinctive proportions: a short bonnet because that’s all it needs, and a long wheelbase to make space for the battery and the people.
“Pause to reflect: what was your attitude to the idea of EVs just five years ago? Not the same as it is now, for sure”
Says Bischoff: “This new package is paradise for designers. We can move the wheels right to the corners. Because there’s no engine, the demand for cooling is limited. So the statement for our EVs is: we will be grille-less. The facial expression is the headlights and the badge.” The front lights are designed to signal the car’s intent when it’s going autonomously, making ‘eye contact’. “If the sensors identify a pedestrian, the eyes look at him,” says Bischoff, meaning the I.D.’s headlights swivel to point in their direction. If the car wants to give way to them, a sweep of green lights sweeps its way across the car’s face.
Ah, the emission-less, driver-less, deferential car. Good at a societal level, for sure. But a happy prospect for recreational drivers? Our attitudes will surely change. Pause to reflect: what was your attitude to the idea of EVs just five years ago? Not the same as it is now, for sure, because the cars and the context are both so different. Your feelings about autonomy will undergo a transformation too, over the next few years, because the context and execution and competence of autonomy will surely change drastically.
Even so, today’s Type R fan wants something different, and this Prototype delivers. Honda will do it, but of course Honda will do sparkly-clean fuel-cell cars too. VW won’t shift entirely and wholly to things like the I.D. It’ll still be making Golfs well after 2020. Including GTIs.
It recently launched the GTI Clubsport S, a car that pursues the Nurburgring flag so crazily it does without a back seat. So however much VW paints itself saintly, we’ll still be able to enjoy its occasional driver-thrilling fall from grace.