* VW to focus on high-end models with early plug-in launches
* Plug-in hybrids to become pillar of model strategy-VW
* IHS sees better outlook for plug-in hybrids than EVs
By Andreas Cremer
BERLIN, Dec 13 Volkswagen will start
selling its first plug-in hybrid models next year to sports car
lovers as the German automaker plays catch-up with
hybrid-vehicle champion Toyota Motor Corp.
VW expects growing demand for the fuel-saving technology and
will target wealthy buyers with initial launches of plug-in
hybrid versions of the Porsche Panamera coupe and the 918 Spyder
sports car, VW's electric car chief Rudolf Krebs told Reuters.
"Plug-in hybrids offer the best of the two worlds (of purely
electric drives and combustion engines)," Krebs said. "This
technology will soon be visible on the roads. That's why we
really want to get weaving."
Europe's biggest car maker is a late starter on electric
powertrains after arguing for years that clean diesel is a
better fuel-efficiency strategy than hybrids, which combine a
combustion engine with battery-powered electric propulsion.
Toyota, the world's no. 1 car maker, introduced the Prius
hybrid compact vehicle in 1997, 13 years before VW's Touareg
hybrid SUV came to market in 2010, and started delivering a
Prius plug-in version this year.
Faced with caps on carbon-dioxide emissions in core European
markets and a drive by rivals for the most ecological
powertrains, VW wants its share of the growing euphoria for
plug-in hybrids that can travel longer distances on battery
power than ordinary hybrids and can be recharged in public.
"This is a long-term trend that can no longer be reversed,"
Krebs said, noting that VW will commit a "considerable" amount
of over 7 billion euros ($9.13 billion) of annual spending on
research and development to electric mobility.
"The planned offensive on plug-in hybrids will become a core
element of our future strategy."
A stronger push by VW into plug-in hybrid technology could
also wrongfoot French rival Renault and Japanese
affiliate Nissan which have staked the most on purely
electric cars among major auto companies, investing 4 billion
euros in their development and production.
Sales projections suggest VW may be backing the right horse.
Global production of plug-in hybrids may soar more than
eight times to 960,644 vehicles by 2018 from 118,961 in 2013,
according to research firm IHS Automotive.
By contrast, sales of purely electric cars, shunned for
their high prices and limited driving range, may increase fewer
than threefold in that period to 627,816, IHS said.
VW plans to roll out plug-in hybrid versions of its best
selling Golf hatchback in 2014 and the Passat model, flanked by
the Audi Q7 SUV, A3 compact and the Porsche Cayenne SUV,
according to Krebs. The Audi A6 sedan and A8 flagship model will
follow in subsequent years, he added.
"We will take this pioneering technology out of its niche and
make it accessible to as many customers as possible," Chief
Executive Martin Winterkorn said at the Paris auto show in
"They're trying to get a foot into the door because Toyota
and other rivals won't be caught napping," said Hanover-based
NordLB analyst Frank Schwope. "But it will be a long battle."
($1 = 0.7669 euros)
(Editing by David Cowell)