On the southern edge of Brussels, where the city turns to suburbs, the future of Germany’s most successful automaker is taking shape inside a peculiar sort of car factory. Here, there are no exhaust pipes, transmissions or fuel tanks. There are no spark plugs, radiators or manifolds. What the Volkswagen Group factory does have, however, are batteries stacked to the rafters.
Thirty-six shoebox-sized battery modules, each containing a dozen lithium-ion cells, are packed into seven-foot long electric-battery packs and slung under the floor of each sport utility vehicle produced here. The first electric SUV from Volkswagen’s luxury Audi brand, the e-tron, can go 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) on a single battery cycle and be recharged in as little as half an hour. The styling is conventional, the interior is luxurious and the ride is nearly silent.
The e-tron SUV has one job for Volkswagen: Prove that a carmaker that has relied almost exclusively on the internal combustion engine since it was founded 82 years ago can produce electric vehicles people want to buy and policymakers will embrace as they cast around for ways to tackle the climate crisis. Success means that Volkswagen will overtake rivals, including Tesla, in electric car sales and fend off new challengers from China and Silicon Valley; failure could signal the beginning of the end for a company with 665,000 employees and annual revenue of $265 billion.