VW ID3 – saviour or harbinger?
At the Frankfurt motor show, those manufacturer-representatives in attendance, have it would appear, spent the obligatory press days smiling through clenched teeth. Boldly proffering their very latest in hybrid combustion and in a few notable cases, pure-EV offerings, the combined European, Far Eastern and in a few cases, North American carmakers are nevertheless casting anxious skywards glances towards a rapidly darkening vista.
Five years ago, at this same Frankfurt hall, Volkswagen senior management attempted to swat away allegations of systemic wrongdoing, only for the full and grubby story to burst forth, leading to one of the most expensive and reputationally damaging clean-up operations in automotive history. It’s a reckoning that has massively destabilised the unwieldy VW mothership over the intervening five years, but not VW alone. The entire industry is (some might say, justifyingly) now paying the price.
But we really have seen nothing yet. Next year is when the reckoning truly begins, with the implications of EU-wide emission regulation changes likely to see the biggest shift in the European auto-industry landscape in decades. From 2020, fleetwide CO2 emissions (across the carmaker’s entire offering) must be reduced to an average of 95 g/ km for 95% of a manufacturer’s car range. Full compliance is mandated from 2021.
Currently, this figure sits at 120.5 g/ km average, a figure which has worsened of late owing to the proportionally greater uptake of petrol engined vehicles, a legacy of the emissions debacle, not to mention carbuyers insatiable appetite for heavier and less fuel efficient crossovers and SUVs.
But with EU fines for non-compliance post-2020 (€95 per car, per excess gram of CO2) loom, rather than face ruinous fines, we can expect to witness an unprecedented cull of model lines and according to some industry observers, lay-offs or even plant shut-downs.
Simultaneously, carmakers are feverishly preparing hybrid and EV offerings with which they hope to entice a broadly ambivalent public, who in some cases are still smarting from the revelations of 2014, but more profoundly, remain reluctant to pay more for technology about which they remain unconvinced in cost / benefit terms. And if the customer won’t pony up, where does that leave everyone?
For the carmakers themselves, it suggests years haemorrhaging cash, since it would be naïve to expect that customers will be prepared to bear the full costs of this shift. Furthermore, having banked on a measured, incremental move towards electrification, to be forced prematurely to a full embrace has come as something of an existential jolt.
Which brings us back to Volkswagen, who at Frankfurt announced their much-anticipated electric car, the ID3 hatchback. Based closely on the 2016 Paris show concept, VW claim that its EV is a landmark product, at least as significant as the Beetle or Golf. The first product on VW’s new MEB platform, the ID3 is a broadly Golf-sized (only 3mm longer, 10mm wider and 60mm taller) hatch, aimed at the heart of the C-sector, where currently only Nissan really have any meaningful EV market traction.
To be offered in three battery sizes and with two power outputs from its rear-mounted electric motor, ID3 is fitted with a 45kWh battery giving a claimed range of 205 miles and 148bhp, and 58kWh and 77kWh batteries both with 201bhp, delivering 260 and 341 miles respectively. Repeat after me: Range, range, and furthermore, range.
But what of the product itself? It’s certainly a refreshingly spare shape, devoid of the fussy, over-decorated style of Wolfsburg’s current uninspired output. But what it lacks perhaps is much by way of surprise, to say nothing of delight. Speaking to Autocar, VW’s design chief, Klaus Bischoff reportedly said, “We’ve kept it simple and only used a few clear lines.”
But photos only provide a limited palette of dimensions, so having a man at the IAA’s halls (Auto-Didakt’s Christopher Butt), we called upon his judgement. Here’s what he had to say about the ID3’s exterior.
“A new icon this one isn’t, but it’s the best VW in a while. It’s excessively non-confrontational – [to some extent] the anti-i3. Only the wheels and those (silly) octagonal patterns pay lip service to futurism. It’s more like a pre-waku-doki Toyota” [in the manner that] “it’s non-styled.” Christopher, not a man to mince words, went on to describe the ID3’s exterior as “Wilfully bland, which I prefer to ‘Heidedesign 2.0‘, but hardly sets the pulse racing.”
Ah yes, but perhaps akin to the Mercedes concept featured yesterday, the cabin is the thing? It’s certainly less decorative than current fare, Bischoff outlining to journalists, “We’ve also made an internal revolution, with a new design that’s extra-simple and clear. We’ve added value by increasing the amount of space, making it airy and open.”
Does our resident design critic concur? “The interior feels built down to a price; the doors in particular are very flimsy, which wouldn’t have been a problem if VW hadn’t spoiled us the way they did these past decades. The UX is almost completely touchscreen-based, and its got a head-up display too; that’s where they placed the ‘futuristic gimmick’ factor, rather than the styling. That’s okay, just not VW at all. It shows just how much the focus is shifting, away from tangible qualities to digital ones.”
Our Frankfurt correspondent concluded by saying, “It should do the trick for its intended customer base, so it’s good enough.”
It surely better had be, given the challenges facing its maker. CEO, Herbert Diess, told reporters at Frankfurt that VW was right to take this €80 billion leap to become the World’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles. But in the short term at least, the mountain VW and its rivals has to scale is forbidding. According to some analysts, in order to meet targets, VW will have to sell as many ID models as the entire 2018 European EV market combined by 2021, a figure which has been cited as 6% of the market. That’s a lot of cars.
Meanwhile, VW is also set to unveil the 8th generation of its bestselling Golf, which if pre-release images are any guide, appears to be a further Heidedesign regression, even if it is believed to be a technological tour-de force. But what the success of ID3 will do to Golf sales, or to its significance to the carmaker as a whole is for now at least, a matter of speculation. But could a day arrive when VW is forced to chose between ‘icons’?
With soothsayers predicting that carmakers like Volkswagen are facing years of heavy discounting to fleets in order to make the numbers, the medium-term prognosis for a large number of the industry looks at best to consist of heavy losses. How long can VW (or anyone else for that matter) sustain such a business model?
The ID3’s prospects then appear as binary as the code which underpins its cutting edge tech. Because embedded within it lies the potential to either become VW’s next landmark, or agent of death. The stakes really couldn’t be higher.
Datasource: Automotive News Europe / Autocar