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It will be 2014 before we see the first all-electric Volkswagen. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)
It will be 2014 before we see the first all-electric Volkswagen. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

Volkswagen dragged reluctantly into electric future Add to ...

Volkswagen is being dragged kicking and screaming into the electric car age. Vee-Dub will introduce its first all-electric car to North America in limited quantities on a lease-only basis in 2014. That will be almost four years after Nissan launched its all-electric Leaf and GM introduced its gas-electric Volt.

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VW may not have much enthusiasm for the all-electric option, but when it finally brings one to market it will be in the vehicle that is the all-important basis of the brand – the Golf.

The Golf has been Europe’s best-selling car year in and year out for most of the last 30 years. The company knows that if the electric Golf is a dog it will do immense damage to the reputation of its bread-and-butter product. That is undoubtedly why VW is being so slow and cautious in making electric car promises. In fact, the company doesn’t really believe in electric cars. Senior executives have stated that it is government regulations not customer demand that put the company on the electric car path.

Nissan, which has plowed more than $6-billion dollars into electric car development believes that 10 per cent of global automobile production will be all-electric by 2020. VW, on the other hand, says it will only be 3 per cent by 2018 and no comment on 2020. You can see that two of the world’s major car companies s have very different views about electric-car market acceptance.

I was able to test drive in an electric Golf because I took a trip north to Wolfsburg after the Frankfurt auto show. Wolfsburg is Volkswagen’s home and is like no other automotive centre in the world. Its original factory was built to produce Hitler’s “People’s Car” in the late 1930s but was switched to military production as soon as the war broke out. German businessmen and the State of Lower Saxony got the factory restarted after 1945 and began cranking out Volkswagen Beetles – millions of them – a significant contributor to Germany’s “economic miracle.” When the original Beetle was done in the mid-1970s, the Golf took over the factory and went on to even greater success. The plant grew and grew and is now the largest auto factory in the world and has built 39 million vehicles since opening.

There are 50,000 well-paid, well-vacationed, well-unionized VW employees in Wolfsburg. Remember, the local state government still owns 20 per cent of Volkswagen which, in German law, gives the state veto power over board decisions. I asked a VW representative if that meant the state always voted according to the union’s wishes. The response was a silent smile and a positive nod.

The other striking thing about Wolfsburg is a company-owned theme park called Autostadt next to the gigantic factory. This is like Disney World for car-mad Germans. Two million visitors a year come to see historic cars, concept cars, kiddie cars, movies about cars and fancy restaurants. So many Germans want to visit the VW factory that they are towed through the several-kilometre-long plant on trains.

But back to the electric Golf; its official name is the Golf blue-e-motion and I have no idea what that means. The one I tested is in the sixth generation of the Golf but the market-ready version will be in the seventh-generation Golf.

The present one has 315 kilograms of batteries in the form of 180 lithium ion cells strung together under the floor and in the trunk. The origin of the batteries and their production-ready configuration, capability and cost is treated like a state secret. This is the make-it-or-break-it component of any electric car and VW is playing its cards very close to the vest.

I’ve always considered Volkswagen a reluctant and late entrant to the electric car derby. The fact that it’s putting the Golf brand on the line with its first all-electric application tells me the company is in fact taking electric cars seriously at last. However, if you plan to go to Wolfsburg, do it to see Disney World – oh, I mean Autostadt – not the blue-e-motion. You’ll see a lot more that way.