When I was a kid, my best friend’s family got a Volkswagen Microbus. At that time, in the mid-'60s, American cars were land yachts with gas-guzzling V-8 engines and acres of chrome. Then, along came this odd-looking van with high seating, a horizontal steering wheel and an air-cooled engine. I wanted one badly.
The so-called I.D. Buzz, due out in 2022, will rock 369 horsepower from two electric motors and an all-wheel-drive powertrain.”
Later, I got my wish. In 1966, my father bought a bus and converted it to a camper for us to tour Europe in. Years later, I bought my own — a second-generation ’68 bus, named Basil by the previous owner, a hippie in a tie-dyed dress. My wife and I put all our possessions in Basil and moved to — where else? — California.
I’d thought the days of the VeeDub bus were behind me until I saw a space-age version of my old ride at the Los Angeles Auto Show in December. Volkswagen, still nursing a black eye from the “dieselgate” emissions-cheating scandal, has rolled out a concept version of an electric Microbus with the tagline "The VW Bus is back." What better way to make VW a warm and fuzzy brand again than to bring back this old favorite?
New tech for an old favorite
As I stood staring at this futuristic vehicle, I couldn’t help but hark back to the bus I drove to California. While I loved it, the bus was so underpowered it couldn’t — as they say — get out of its own way. The first VW bus in the U.S. had just 30 horsepower. Basil had a bit more power than that, but still wheezed as it struggled over Vail Pass in Colorado at more than 10,000 feet.
The so-called I.D. Buzz model, the seventh generation of the venerable bus, due out in 2022, will rock 369 horsepower from two electric motors and an all-wheel-drive powertrain. But that ain’t all — VW says its 111 kilowatt-hour battery pack will provide 300 miles of range and recharge around 80% of battery storage in as little as half an hour. Road trip!
Of course, there are also plans for a fully self-driving version, the I.D. Pilot, to go into production by 2025. VW says the steering wheel will fold away and autonomous technology will include “pop-up laser scanners in the roof” and a heads-up display integrating augmented reality.
It’s hard to mesh visions of a self-driving electric bus with the buses that I rode across Europe in and later owned. What I — and many others at the time — loved about the early Microbus was its simplicity. Maintenance was cheap. I carried a small toolbox in the back of my bus and a few spare parts. When it quit running I glided to the side of the road, opened the rear hatch and usually found the problem in a few minutes.
Simplicity was part of the initial concept, too. Ben Pon Sr., the first VW importer for the American market, sketched an outline of the Microbus on a napkin during lunch one day in 1947, according to Volkswagen. That napkin’s now on display in a museum in Amsterdam — and people still love the iconic bus. In recent years, immaculately restored vintage VW buses have sold for more than $200,000.
But in the U.S. in 1968, a base model was about $2,200, according to Consumer Guide Automotive. In today’s dollars, that’s around $15,500, a screaming deal compared with current prices. The 2018 Ford Transit Connect passenger wagon, for instance, starts at almost $26,000, while a new Mercedes-Benz Metris passenger van is closer to $30,000.
Of course, it’s too early to say how much a new, all-electric bus from VW will cost once — and if — it’s released in a few years. But it’s hard to imagine it will be anywhere near the price of a mint condition VW Microbus — today or when it was first rolled out.
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Can the bus bring the love back?
While it’s easy to throw together an eye-catching concept vehicle to generate headlines, VW seems serious about bringing the new bus to the masses. “We want to reignite America’s love for VW,” Herbert Diess, chairman of the board of management for the Volkswagen brand, said in a statement.
It remains to be seen whether the I.D. Buzz can restore faith in VW. Or whether veering toward electricity as a fuel, from diesel, will connect with Americans. But VW is making a smart bet by wrapping in a time-tested design, which, as VW says, once “put a smile on every face that saw it.”
(Top image © 2018 Copyright Volkswagen US; 1964 photo courtesy of Mark S. Chevalier.)