E-Golf marks VW's flexible product path

The e-Golf represents the leading edge of Volkswagen's flexible new product-development strategy.

WOLFSBURG, Germany -- Volkswagen's e-Golf has all the makings of a "compliance car" -- a vehicle whose sole purpose is to satisfy clean-air regulations in California and other states mandating the sale of zero-emission vehicles.

And it's a late one at that, due to arrive later this year, well after similar models from Nissan, Chevrolet, Ford, Honda and even Fiat, which wasn't even in the United States five years ago.

But for Volkswagen, the e-Golf is not just a bow to regulators. The car represents the leading edge of a flexible new product-development strategy built around MQB, the code-name for a modular set of underpinnings that can be mixed, matched and varied to accommodate a variety of powertrains in a broad range of vehicles.

That strategy allows Volkswagen to treat a plug-in electric such as the e-Golf as just another variant of its global top-seller -- built alongside the diesel-powered GTD and GTI hot-hatch versions of the Golf -- and realize far broader economies of scale. It also avoids much of the costly work associated with retrofitting an existing platform to run on batteries, as Fiat did with its 500e, or developing an electric vehicle from the ground up, as Nissan did with the Leaf.

"We are thinking that the right way is large-scale production, not special, small niche cars," said Soren Hintze, Volkswagen's chief engineer for the e-Golf. "We think that a broad product range is necessary to bring these to market."

Volkswagen's strategy is born from work that began about seven years ago when the company began developing its "toolkit" approach to vehicle engineering. The Golf is based on the same MQB platform architecture toolkit also used on the Audi A3 and other front-wheel-drive vehicles with transverse engines to follow from the VW Group.

The MQB toolkit was designed from Day One to accommodate an array of powertrains, including internal combustion engines, compressed natural gas, plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicle drivetrains, Hintze said. For the e-Golf, that means the costs associated with the battery electric powertrain can be spread across the entire Golf program. VW executives declined to provide cost or savings details associated with the approach, but Hintze said it is more cost-effective than developing a unique EV nameplate and platform from the ground up.

The flexible approach also extends to Volkswagen's production line. Inside its sprawling, 16 million-square-foot factory here, e-Golfs roll down the assembly line alongside standard Golfs, diesel-powered models and the Golf GTI hot hatch.

"What we do is adapt the electric components to the existing Golf. Some competitors created a new model and developed the car around the electric components," said Harald Manzenrieder, head of e-Golf production.

In the basement beneath the Golf production line, workers assemble e-Golf electric powertrains alongside gasoline and diesel engines. The engines are then linked with front and rear suspension modules before being carried up on a lift. They're then married to the vehicle bodies on the ground level of the plant.

There's one spot where the e-Golf assembly process diverges: With chassis and powertrain married to the body, e-Golfs are towed to a nearby section of the factory where eight teams of EV assembly specialists install high-voltage components of the e-Golf, including the battery pack, power control unit and charging controller. The process adds an hour to the usual Golf assembly time.

Manzenrieder says the process is an extra step to ensure quality and to build an in-house team of experts on the nuances of electric-car assembly. If Volkswagen wanted to, that step could be shifted to the normal assembly line. "When we are ready and our team is ready, we'll switch back," Manzenrieder said.

MQB at a glance
Vehicles based on Volkswagen's MQB toolkit share dimensions and design elements between the front axle and firewall but can vary widely beyond that.

Configuration: Transverse-mounted front engine fwd

First vehicles: VW Golf, Audi A3, Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia, Audi TT

Powertrain options: Gasoline, diesel, CNG, ethanol, plug-in hybrid, EV

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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