The Volkswagen Bug was the ultimate “green” car of the 1960s, even if people didn’t see them that way — they were marketed (in a series of stark, award-winning ads you may know from "Mad Men") as no-nonsense cars for tightwads. Those of us who’d heard of the environment called it “ecology” back then. I went to the first Earth Day Celebration in 1970, and it sure felt like something new.
A 1965 VW Bug got between 25 and 32 mpg, good even by today’s standards, but few recall today that it was also a mighty polluter in that era before catalytic converters tamed the exhaust fumes.
VW is in an interesting spot now. It still sells a lot of Beetles, even if Golfs and Jettas are its bread and butter here in the U.S. It’s got class-winning diesel TDI cars, and a new but late-to-the-party hybrid. It’s always been fairly discouraging about battery electrics, preferring diesels for meeting environmental goals. But like other big automakers that sell a lot of cars in California, VW has to get with the program. By the 2018 model year, the top 11 automakers combined needs to be selling 17,000 battery electrics (or zero-emission hydrogen cars) and 61,000 plug-in hybrids in the Golden State. By 2025, that ramps up to 109,000 zero emission cars and 164,000 plug-in hybrids.
That offers a ready explanation for a move VW just made. It promoted its Europe-based electric vehicle guy, Joerge Sommer, to be head of all product marketing and brand strategy in the U.S. It certainly looks like Sommer is being brought in to plug VW into the electric socket.
Of course, VW denies this. Mark Gillies, VW’s manager of product and technology, tells me, “It’s happenstance that he has that background. Sommer is an engineer, but he was previously in more of a sales and marketing role. In essence, does this signify a change in our electrification strategy? No. In this case, two plus two equals five.”
VW's strategy centers on the tried-and-true Golf model. I drove an early version of the electric E-Golf in Santa Monica in 2010. With a 26.5 kilowatt-hour pack (from Sanyo), the E-Golf has 93-mile range, which were tested in a U.S. program announced last year. That nine-month program involved 20 cars (mostly driven by VW employees) in Detroit, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The results were encouraging enough for the company to confirm the car for the American market.
Gillies says VW will bring the E-Golf to the U.S. in late 2014, but he can’t offer any volume projections or identify the target markets, other than California, of course.
A former executive editor at Car and Driver, Gillies was one of the VW people who tested the cars, and he enjoyed the experience. “In my days as a car writer I was a real electric vehicle skeptic, but I liked it a lot,” he said. “It basically has all the practicality of a regular vehicle, and the workplace charger was great.” The 93 miles is under ideal conditions, he said — in the real world it gets 70 to 80, he said.
VW has other electric cars. I was in Frankfurt for the debut of the tiny E-Up! That car comes in an electric version (presumably overseen by Sommer) with an 18.7-kilowatt-hour battery pack that also gets 93 miles on a charge. “We have no plans to bring the E-Up! to the U.S.,” Gillies said. He also put the kibosh on a U.S. version of the exciting XL1, an innovative two-seat plug-in hybrid (pictured above) that’s been touted to get as much as 260 mpg. It won’t be sold here, but a few will trickle in for demonstration purposes. And don't forget the e-Bugster, one of my favorite car names. That's it below, a cross between a Beetle and a classic Porsche Speedster. Yes, I know it's a concept car and is very unlikely for production. But as shown it has a similar drivetrain to the E-Golf (with a slightly bigger battery pack).
OK, VW, testing time is over. It’s time to firm up an electric strategy that won’t get you accused of building “compliance cars.” The alternative, not very practical, is to pour billions into a huge hydrogen ramp-up. Maybe that isn’t why Joerge Sommer (who also developed electric cars for Renault) is packing his bags for an extended stay in the U.S., but having him over here won’t hurt.
Here's a slide show that lets you peek into the E-Golf. This is what's coming to our shores, folks:
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