CHATTANOOGA — Last week, I was at Volkswagen's assembly plant here for the reveal of the new five-seat Atlas Cross Sport, which will let Volkswagen compete against the Ford Edge and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
But in conversations with executives, I found myself talking and thinking about the German brand's coming lineup of at least three battery-electric vehicles, starting next year with the ID4 compact crossover.
Here's the problem: Though its price hasn't yet been revealed, the ID4 is expected to start in the high $30,000s and land — after the $7,500 federal tax credit — in the lower $30,000s for most U.S. buyers. According to VW of America CEO Scott Keogh, that's a number that would be in the "heart of the market."
But Volkswagen shouldn't aim for the heart of the market. Given its ugly recent history, it should aim for the lungs.
The high $30,000s before the credit might be a price at which Volkswagen can still make money on the ID4 in the U.S. because of the automaker's global scale. But it's not a price that will ever bring electric mobility "to the millions, and not just the millionaires," as VW executives have been pledging for at least two years.
It's also not a price that will ever wash away the grievous sin that pushed Volkswagen into electric vehicles in the first place: its yearslong conspiracy to cheat on diesel emissions tests, polluting the atmosphere many times more than was either allowed or that it claimed with virtually every diesel vehicle it sold during that time.
Volkswagen is the only major automaker to have pleaded guilty to felonies for its conduct in the U.S. Globally, its illicit decision to cheat on diesel emissions has cost it more than $30 billion — and counting. German prosecutors continue to pursue former and current VW executives for their roles in the scandal.
And this is worth remembering: If "corporations are people," as one guy famously claimed, Volkswagen would not be selling vehicles in the U.S. — it would still be doing hard time behind bars.
So how, then, does a corporation atone for its past actions? How does it show true, sincere repentance?
I take current Volkswagen executives at their word that they want to put this scandal and the actions that caused it in the past, never to be repeated, and that the gigantic global bureaucracy that is Volkswagen has learned the error of its ways and has repented. And admittedly, I don't know the cost basis for the ID4 beyond the more than $50 billion Volkswagen says it has poured into development of its coming fleet of BEVs.
But at least at the start, pricing the ID4 lower would speak louder than words. And subsidizing its first BEV in the U.S. into a price under $30,000 — even in a base model — where it could help build critical mass for other EVs would aid their broader acceptance from consumers still wary that electric propulsion is viable.
Volkswagen deserves plaudits for its audacious plan to transform into a global BEV powerhouse.
I just hope it launches that plan with the right amount of contrition.