Volkswagen's Last Kick at the Microbus Can: Maybe Call It a Crossover?
It seems that even Volkswagen executives realize you can’t keep showing off different variants of the same concept before the public grows weary of the tease.
At the North American International Auto Show this week, visitors to Detroit feasted their eyes on the eleventy billionth latter-day VW Microbus concept, this time called the I.D. Buzz. Okay, maybe that number is a bit high, but the folks from Wolfsburg have kept up a steady trickle of retro Microbus concepts for 16 years. This time, it’s fully electric. No wheezy four-cylinder (or raucous five) in sight.
Naturally, the automaker hopes this latest concept’s name doesn’t prove a lie, but this latest offering — and the atmosphere around it — feels different. The mood implies it’s now or never for the concept — not just this one-off vehicle, but the concept of a reborn Microbus altogether.
While VW hasn’t flat out said it, the company clearly suggests that if it can’t get enough buzz for the Buzz, it might just throw up its hands and stop trying. Let the VW fanboys have their modded Transporters in garish paint colors — there’s a business to run here.
Speaking to Auto Express at the concept’s launch, Volkswagen sales and marketing head Jurgen Stackmann spelled it out.
“I think this is the most realistic shot ever at the Microbus coming and we’ll have to see in the next few weeks how big a potential market in the US could be,” he said, adding that American interest is crucial. “There’s no other market globally where microbus has the emotional pull that it has in the US.”
Volkswagen plans a big electric vehicle push in the coming years, partly due to perceived market direction and looming regulatory hurdles, and partly as penance for its diesel emissions scandal. The compact I.D., due out in 2020, is expected to be joined by a range of models built atop VW’s Modular Electric Drive Kit (MEB). The Microbus/Buzz is just one of several possibilities.
When VW teased the I.D. Buzz ahead of the show, this author might have had some harsh things to say about the company’s cynical retro-baiting. I did, however, suggest that the Buzz’s electric setup could make for the truest realization of the Microbus concept and, if buyers respond, could make for a splashy niche vehicle.
By ditching an internal combustion engine, the Buzz, or whatever VW calls it, can adopt a clean Type 1 shape and maximize its highly configurable interior space. The under-floor 111 kWh battery pack affords the tall vehicle a low center of gravity. There’s more positive attributes, including versatility and performance — VW claims a range of up to 270 miles on the U.S. cycle, and five-second sprints to 60 miles per hour. Twin motors — one for each axle — make a combined output of 369 horsepower, driving all four wheels.
Because crossovers are now bigger than the Beatles when they were bigger than Jesus, gutsy power numbers and AWD, plus a cavernous interior, could raise eyebrows in a market that remains wary of electric propulsion. Depending on the market, VW could simply decide to nix the front motor and offer a RWD setup.
The bean counters could easily give the Buzz a pass, preferring something a little more conventional and marketable. If that does happen — please, let this Microbus concept be the last.
[Images: Volkswagen of America]
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