Volkswagen gave us our first look at an undisguised prototype of its future electric cars—sort of. This is the MEB (Modular Elektrobaukasten) platform which will underpin the VW Group’s future compact and subcompact battery-powered EVs, including the production versions of the Volkswagen-brand concepts we’ve seen so far: I.D., I.D. Crozz, I.D. Vizzion, and I.D. Buzz.
For those familiar with modern battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), there’s nothing radical here: The battery pack is under the floor, the mechanical bits are ahead of the firewall, and the control hardware is spread throughout the chassis. With no need to support an internal-combustion powertrain, the MEB platform features short overhangs, no driveline/exhaust tunnel, and a low cargo-area floor.
During the presentation, Volkswagen touted the benefits of a dedicated EV architecture versus making a BEV out of the MQB platform that underpins the e-Golf—primarily that there’s no need to stuff batteries and other equipment into whichever nook or cranny will fit them. Volkswagen blames the petrol-first layout for the electric Golf’s 125-mile range, and while we’re a bit skeptical—Hyundai gets 258 miles out of the Kona Electric, which shares its platform with a conventionally powered model—it’s obvious MEB has plenty of space for a large battery. We have no reason to doubt VW’s estimate of 200 to 300 miles of range, and with the rapid advances being made in battery chemistry, we’d hope those numbers are conservative.
We did learn additional interesting bits about the MEB platform. First, although BEVs can have their motors pretty much any place the engineers please, MEB-based cars will offer either rear- or all-wheel-drive. VW is looking for rear-drive performance benefits, which we applaud; still, we have to wonder what fate will befall Snow Belt buyers want a budget-friendly electric car but might be uncomfortable with rear-drive. If they want a VW, they’ll have to pony up for the extra-cost all-wheel-drive system. (Or get winter tires, which would make the drive wheels much less of an issue.) With so much flexibility in powertrain placement, we can’t help but wonder why Volkswagen wouldn’t make front-drive BEVs as well.
Another curiosity: The rear brakes are drums. We assumed this was primarily a cost-cutting move; after all, modern BEVs rely heavily on regenerative braking (using the motors as generators to charge the battery, which creates resistance that slows the car), to the point that friction brakes do only a fraction of the work. VW tells us that drums have less rolling resistance when the brakes are released. Rear-wheel drive and disc/drum brakes? It’s the 1970s all over again!
The point Volkswagen was looking to make—and the one we see as most important—is that the electric cars it promised in the wake of Dieselgate are well on their way, and that it won’t be staking its future on cars that offer myriad powertrain options. The MEB platform shows that it is approaching EVs as it would gasoline or diesel cars, creating an architecture that can underpin a family of products designed to suit every purse and purpose. Considering that VW is the world’s largest automaker, MEB could signal a sea change in the availability and acceptance of BEVs.