New VW boss Thomas Schäfer’s in tray
Post-Diess, VW needs to rethink its focus. New CEO Thomas Schäfer sits down with CAR to reveal his plans for the brand.
Insider WHAT THE NEW BOSS DOES NEXT
A youthful 52, Thomas Schäfer has decades of experience in the automotive industry, starting with an 18-year stint at Mercedes that’s clearly left its mark.
‘At Mercedes, first of all you develop an eye for quality. And by quality, I don’t just mean fit and finish. In this industry, quality must be a meticulously ministered cradle-to-grave asset, covering the full circle from product via user environment to the evolution of the brand.’
The certified engineer switched from Mercedes to the Volkswagen Group, initially masterminding the export production network. In 2015, he moved to South Africa and ran the local subsidary.
‘Africa is a fascinating continent. Not just South Africa, but also the northern and central parts’ says Schäfer. ‘True, this is a difficult terrain for any car maker, but done right opportunities abound. The growth potential is immense.’
Two years ago, the shooting star was appointed CEO at Skoda. Meanwhile, Herbert Diess was running into difficulties with software and with the unions. On 1 July Schäfer was nominated to the board of directors of the VW Group, became CEO of the Volkswagen brand, and is now also in charge of the volume-sales group which includes Seat/Cupra and Skoda.
We meet in the design department, and for good reason. The VW marque’s current portfolio is quite complete, but most models look bland, verging on boring. There is a marked lack of emotional appeal, and the interiors are a hotchpotch of ergonomic overkill and below-average perceived quality. Surprise- and-delight features are as thin on the ground as unique selling propositions.
‘These tasks are not easily fixed,’ admits Schäfer. ‘On the one side, we need big volumes to succeed, but at the same time the budget for change is limited, so clever spending is key. We know that the customers are not happy with the MMI in the Golf and the ID models, so we must correct this as soon as possible. Having said that, Volkswagen cars should in general also be more friendly, inviting, easy to use and a joy to own, which translates into brighter colours, classier materials, additional features and, generally speaking, a more pronounced feelgood driver environment. In a parallel move, it is imperative to create the VW way of “mobility as a service” – a transparent, added-value, peace-of-mind strategy for new and used cars.’
The new VW Passat developed by Skoda debuts in 2023 – as an estate only. The saloon and both Arteons bite the dust. Also to be launched in 2023 are the no-surprise third-generation Tiguan, the follow-up to the US-made Atlas and the ID. Aero, the saloon that kicks the EV sub-brand upscale one more notch.
In 2023, we expect a heavily facelifted ID. 3 followed by the accordingly revised ID. 4 and ID. 5 in 2024. Throughout the ID range, the totally redesigned interior – instrumentation, dashboard, materials, everything – is the key improvement over the first wave.
The first car to wear the Schäfer touch will be the entry-level ID. 2, currently earmarked for 2025. ‘Early in the game, VW thought a price of under €20,000 might be achievable, but now we know that a target tag of €25,000 is sufficiently ambitious. To keep expenditure down, the R&D work was farmed out to Seat, who have a more favourable cost structure than Volkswagen.’
The first VW-badged version of the ID. 2 to reach dealer showrooms will be the ID. 2 Urban, a city runabout not unlike the five-door Up in character, fitted with a small 45kWh battery and a 150bhp base motor for a maximum range of 260 miles. In 2026, the brand plans to add the ID. 2 X, a five-door crossover offered with the same drivetrain.
Mid-term, project Trinity is probably Schäfer’s most complex task. Due in 2026 or ’27, this is the codename of the first Volkswagen based on the new SSP (scalable systems platform) architecture developed in-house. We understand it will involve large-scale cast aluminium components, and will be assembled in a newly refitted plant close to the main Wolfsburg complex, signed off by the previous regime to placate the pugnacious trade unions.
As if that were not enough of a challenge, SSP must also launch with the advanced new E3 2.0 software, which marks the next step towards fully autonomous driving. The CEO is mum about Trinity, but when asked about shorter-term priorities he offers a glimpse of a different aspect of the company’s future. ‘Right now, VW has one halo car, the ID. Buzz. The Buzz is spoton, yet we need more vehicles which hit potential buyers in the middle of their hearts.
‘Question is, should they also be retro like perhaps a reimagined Karmann, or should they be modern like a high-performance ID. R? Does R have the potential to become a fully fledged sub-brand, or is a GTI range the safer option? Is it wise to carry on using numbers, also in combination with an X denoting crossover body styles,’ continues Schäfer, ‘or are we perhaps better off nursing iconic names like Beetle and Golf?’ Plenty of questions – but few easy answers.
Volkswagen’s new boss has a lot on his mind
THE CURRENT PORTFOLIO MAY BE COMPLETE, BUT MOST MODELS LOOK BORING
When the music stops
Schäfer’s predecessor at the helm of VW passenger cars, Herbert Diess, was also chairman of VW Group, a role now taken by Porsche boss Oliver Blume Running VW sounds like a full-time job, but Schäfer – COO of the VW brand since April – has since July also been CEO of VW passenger cars and head of VW Group’s big-volume operations