News from Volkswagen is that it is gearing-up for a predominantly EV future at the moment, writes Iain Robertson, with a comprehensively revised factory and the promise of its first, purpose-built, battery-electric hatchback by this December.

Rest assured, Volkswagen is neither lacking in knowledge, nor expertise on the electric vehicle front. For a start, as the world’s largest car company, it cannot afford to be lagging in any area but it also has a responsibility, not just to itself and its stakeholders but also to its millions of customers, to position itself in a role exceeding that of Tesla.

In fact, Elon Musk’s company has been the ultimate disruptive influence around the entire motor industry. Its ‘non-car’ stance is what has led to hundreds of thousands of customers knocking on its ‘dealerships’ doors’ and also ensuring that most mentions of EVs are usually followed by the word ‘Tesla’, just as we might use ‘Transit’ to describe all vans, or ‘Hoover’ for vacuum-cleaners, much to Mr Dyson’s chagrin.

VW IDThe one-time home to the infamous Trabant (‘Trabi’), Volkswagen’s manufacturing plant in Zwickau, in the former East Germany, is undergoing an incredible turnaround. Its most recent production has been of both regular Golf and Passat models, although around 90 bodies for Bentley have also been assembled there daily. Conversion of the vehicle factory in Zwickau to turn it into the largest production site for electric mobility in Europe, with an intention to roll-out 330,000 EVs annually, is right on schedule. The focus is on preparations for start-up of the new ID.3 and building the expertise required for it. Incidentally, more than 200 pre-production versions of the ID.3 have already been manufactured successfully, the production line staff being trained using Artificial Intelligence programs.

The first ID. production vehicles are set to roll off the assembly lines at the end of 2019. Only e-cars will be built at Zwickau by the end of 2020, with up to 1,500 a day destined for Volkswagen and other Group brands. For the past couple of years, VW has been showing a variety of models on the international motor show circuit, which have included the ID.Crozz, ID.Vizzion and ID.Roomzz, as well as its winning performance with the ID.racing car. Several new cars will serve the needs of VW, Seat and Skoda. Audi, of course, has its own EV facility in Brussels, where the current e-tron models are being made.

Dr. Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, stated: “It’s my firm conviction that Germany as an automotive location must also lead the way, when it comes to electric mobility. That’s why we’re deliberately converting the Zwickau plant into the largest and most efficient e-car site in Europe. It’s impressive to see the efforts the team is making to help achieve that transformation. Zwickau can become a model for our industry.”

VW IDThe plant will make e-vehicles solely based on the Modular Electric Drive Toolkit (MEB), with that aforementioned target annual production capacity of 330,000 vehicles, using a workforce of 8,000 personnel. Around half of the 1,500 new robots required for body construction are already in operation. The paint shop is being expanded and the first line in final assembly will be operational in the summer.

The new ID.3 is a significant model in the history of VW, were you to refer to the Beetle as ‘1’ and the Golf as ‘2’. It is shown here in ‘disguised’ form, as the car will be launched officially at the Frankfurt Motor Show later this year. However, it is abundantly clear that it will follow a pattern established by the VW Golf, despite its ‘new world’ EV intentions. To fund the ID.3, VW is ramping-up the production of its TSi turbo-petrol engines and offsetting the profits to its Zwickau plant.

The company has been gaining momentum with its existing hybrid, plug-in and electric vehicles that are all conventional in their styling and hardware. There is no reason to suggest that VW will shift design direction radically with its future strategy. Interestingly, it is the first model that the company has ever produced, for which it is accepting pre-booked orders. Prices are expected to start at around £30,000 for the standard 205-miles range models (owners can expect up to around 150-miles of realistic range), with ranges feasible of up to 340-miles on a single charge, at extra cost.

VW IDThe First Edition ID.3 will be available with a stated 260-miles range with a sub-£40,000 price tag and UK customers will be expected to pay a £750 registration deposit, should they commit to an early production example. The prices are very bullish, which suggests that higher production volumes will not automatically introduce a lower entry-point, despite VW’s head of e-mobility (Thomas Ulbrich) making headline news statements like: “VW wants to make affordable, mass-market EVs for the millions and not just for millionaires”. Naturally, one of the arguments in favour of such steep list prices lies in the relatively low-cost of refuelling an EV but there are running costs all the same. Should a battery pack become irreparable, or unserviceable, and out of warranty period, the consumer could be the owner of a £20,000 used ID.3 needing a £10,000 fresh drivetrain.

If VW is to live up to its ‘People’s Car’ intentions, a new ID.3, regardless of trim level, needs to be price-tagged in the region of £18,000 to £25,000 (tops). Therefore, despite the fact that VW Group changes its price-lists more frequently than I change pairs of socks, it needs to be very careful in determining the price entry-point to its compact EV range. Despite the growing uptake rate of both hybrid and EV cars in the UK market, they still represent less than 0.9% of the total market, which ought to signal a shift towards lowering prices, as a means to inspiring the market.

Conclusion:    While anticipating a high demand for the new VW ID.3, we urge caution, until both a wider recharging infrastructure is constructed and retail prices have started to reduce somewhat. It is all very well for politicians to use the EV sector as manoeuvring fodder but they do not pay for their official cars and probably evade payments on their private wheels too!