Scandal-plagued German carmaker Volkswagen is sparing no effort to electrify at the Paris Motor Show. But its emissions tests scam is still making for a highly charged atmosphere, reports Janelle Dumalaon.
"It's so futuristic, you can't even believe it would actually drive."
Those are the words of one spectator at the Paris Motor Show, where Volkswagen has unveiled a fully electric, always-online vehicle, with a range of at least 400 kilometers (248 miles) on a single charge.
It's called the Volkswagen i.D. - and it could be key to Volkswagen maintaining its identity as a modern carmaker who has managed to drive into the future despite being tailgated by scandal today.
In the weeks leading to the Paris Motor Show, the carmaker had said it was set to unveil a concept car "as revolutionary as the Beetle was seven decades ago" - leaving many eager to see the vehicle but wondering whether it would be enough for Volkswagen to leave an uneasy year in the dust.
A full 12 months after the news that Europe's biggest carmaker cheated on emissions tests for its diesel cars in the US, fresh allegations continue to tail Volkswagen, amid a tightening tangle of litigation.
But at the Paris Motor Show, Volkswagen brand chief Herbert Diess was the picture of confidence.
The i.D is something of a pet project of his. According to Diess, a small team within Volkswagen developed the car at the lightning speed of about eight months. And the cars are set to be road-ready as soon as 2020 - each at a 30,000-euro-price tag.
That kind of accelerated timeline might be possible because of the changes Diess himself has pushed for in his year as Volkswagen CEO - like a more decentralized production process and more independence for Volkswagen's R&D teams.
Indeed, Volkswagen's traditionally very top-down structure is often seen as one of the conditions that gave rise to the cheating, as teams within the carmaker struggled to carry out management's ambitious and inflexible plans. Fallout from the scandal has only widened since then, with renewed hits to Volkswagen's image as late as this week.
On Monday, Audi, the Volkswagen group's most profitable brand, bid goodbye to development chief Stefan Knirsch, who left the company after it emerged that he knew about the installation of so-called "defeat devices" in Audi cars which allowed the models to show more favorable levels of emissions during testing than they actually had.
Knirsch's departure could be an indication that the cheating was a more generally-known affair within the group. Citing insiders, German media have reported that a probe into Audi chief Rupert Stadler's own awareness of the cheating turned up with little. Still, who knew what and when will remain the key question posed by regulators, plaintiffs, consumers and shareholders in the tedious search for accountability.
As such, Volkswagen has to find the balance between forging its future and dealing with the clouds of its past. But industry observers point out that Volkswagen had been working on electric vehicles for years. The Dieselgate scandal, while painful, has helped the carmaker to solidify its strategy,said Ian Fletcher, the principal automotive analyst for consultancy IHS Markit.
"Fundamentally, Volkswagen is still a car company. It needs to move forward, it needs to show more products," said Fletcher. "The electric vehicles were always going to be part of its strategy, given emissions regulations, and consumer interest in the area."