One More Time, the Return of VW's Microbus

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 15, 2015

Here we go again. For at least the third time, Volkswagen is hinting it might, at long last, bring back a production version of its much-loved Microbus. But don’t hold ‘em to it—as in past years (even as far back as 2006), the company is hedging its bets by showing off a Microbus concept.

This teaser is what we know about the electric concept vehicle VW is showing at CES. Does it look like a minivan to you? (VW photo)This time around, the Microbus will be shown at CES in a new all-electric version, similar to the snazzy and retro Bulli debuted four years ago in Geneva. It could be, if produced, the world’s first battery-only minivan. But VW could also offer multiple versions, or once again leave the poor concept car at the altar with no production program.
 
We have only the teaser picture above, but Bulli was a handsome beast. Many stories circulated back in 2011 that some version of that car would be pouring out of factory gates, but it didn’t happen. VW executives then told me there was no market for minivans and customers wanted crossover SUVs. And, of course, that’s still the case.
 The Bulli concept from 2011: Everyone loved it, but is it not crossover enough? (VW photo)Every top executive at VW is Doctor This or Doctor That. It’s an educated company, a factor that unfortunately didn’t seem to help with the diesel scandal. It’s interesting that VW announced its full-speed-ahead plug-in policies just before that debacle came to light (at the recent Frankfurt show), but perhaps the two things aren’t strictly related.
 
At CES, Dr. Herbert Diess, chairman of VW’s passenger car brand, will deliver a keynote speech on “the latest developments in electromobility” (with some connectivity thrown in). He’s then going to unveil “a completely new concept car” that will preview “the beginning of a new era of affordable long-distance electromobility.”

A 1966 Microbus. Who can deny the charisma? (VW graphic)Audi unveiled the electric Audi e-tron Quattro Concept (with range of more than 311 miles), unveiled at the Frankfurt show earlier this year. A production version is slated for 2018. A tantalizing possibility is that some level of that car’s tech could make it into a more affordable Volkswagen version. And why not put it in a reborn Microbus? 
 
The challenge will be making such a car affordable. To get that 300-mile range, the Audi has a  95-kilowatt-hour battery pack, and those don’t come cheap. A VW version doesn’t need quite that much range, nor does it need to reach 130 mph or achieve zero to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds. My preferred scenario would be a Microbus (or Bulli, or whatever they want to call it) with multiple drivetrains, including electric and plug-in hybrid, but diesel and gasoline, too.
 
Britain’s Autocar thinks that’s what’s actually happening, and that multiple versions of the Microbus will be built in VW’s Puebla, Mexico plant from 2017. Autocar reports:

The all-electric Microbus is planned to be offered alongside more conventional turbocharged four-cylinder petrol and diesel powerplants on the production Microbus, which senior Wolfsburg sources describe as being smaller than the latest Multivan.

The original Microbus was a cool ride. Hippies had them, with giant sunflower decals pasted on the side. The VW logo on the nose was changed to a peace sign! A retro production version (and the sneak photo shows some changes from the Bulli) would be just the thing to overcome the stigma holding back minivan sales.

 The Citroen C4 Picasso isn't seen in America, but there's a certain resemblance to the Ford C-Max. Could the new Microbus look like this? (Citroen photo)But Sam Abuelsamid, an auto analyst at Navigant Research, is skeptical that we’ll see something that looks like a minivan. That configuration is “a shrinking part of the market in Europe and North America,” he said. “I think what we’ll see at CES is far more likely to be something crossover-like, but not necessarily an SUV-like crossover. More likely it will be something along the lines of the Renault Captur or Citroen C4 Picasso.”
 
Could be. I’ll see it in person next month. Toyota created an ad campaign to give its vans street cred; the Microbus has that built in, especially in the American market. It amused me when Fiat touted the original 500 in ads for the new one. They didn’t sell that vintage 1950s microcar here (or at least not many of them), so Americans have no memories of snogging in the back of one.

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