Volkswagen announced the BUDD-e concept at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas a few weeks back. It's a "showcase of several technologies and concepts" that Volkswagen promises will deliver a 373-mile range, with up to 80 percent recharging capability in just 30 minutes.
The press release notes: "This architecture heralds a fundamental change in electric cars and ushers in a revolution in automotive technology, leaving today’s fossil-fuel powered internal combustion engines and drivetrains in the past."
Man, if anybody wants to distance themselves from the evils of fossil fuels, it's those engineers at Volkswagen.
From the second the scuttlebutt suggested that Volkswagen was going to show a van-like object, every old hippie with an "Is it 4:20 yet?" sticker and a cassette collection comprised of nothing but Grateful Dead bootlegs FREAKED THE EFF OUT that the new Microbus had finally arrived.
Only that's not what showed up at CES. BUDD-e leaves a lot to be desired. Here are just five issues to start with:
The Incessant Focus on Technology
VW has itself to blame on this one using "Microbus" in its own press release about BUDD-e, but this isn't even close to what a modern Microbus should be. Volkswagen killed thousands of characters in its press release talking about things like "next-generation human-machine interface," "Gesture Control 2.0" and "Personalized Light."
The Type 2 Microbus was wildly popular not because of technology. It was wildly popular in spite of its lack of technology. Have you ever thought, "What my next vehicle is really missing is the ability to flap my hand at a screen and be directed to the closest Jack in the Box"? Of course not.
This technology might be appealing to the kind of early adopters that buzz around Silicon Valley wearing Google Glass on their hoverboards. Most of us are just looking for a way to get to work.
They Had the Chance and Blew It. TWICE.
This is Volkswagen's THIRD go at introducing a modern Microbus. In 2001, it showed the Volkswagen Microbus Concept Car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It looked like the modern interpretation of the 1960s and 1970s-era Type 2 right down to its roof mounted surfboards. Everybody loved it, and it was supposed to be ready for production on the T5 Transporter platform in 2003. It never materialized.
Then, in 2011, Volkswagen showed the Bulli Concept at the Geneva Motor Show. It, too, was reminiscent of the original Type 2 and was a lot more appealing than the Chrysler-built VW Routan minivan, the brand was pushing out. It, too, was stillborn and never made it to production.
Now, we see a third iteration, and this one's ever further from the original concept. One more step away and it'll start to look like a Nissan Leaf.
It'll Never Get Built
All the indications are there in the press release:
"This vehicle successfully incorporates Volkswagen’s heritage while providing a glimpse into the brand’s future." In English, this means that there's a styling cue that will eventually be used somewhere on the Golf in 2018.
"With BUDD-e, Volkswagen demonstrates what electric mobility could be like by the year 2019." You'll forgive me, but I've heard this every six months since I found that stack of old Popular Mechanics issues at the library in 1976. Yet 40 years later, we're driving exactly the same way we were.
It Seats Four
There are a lot of factors that make cars desirable. Utility is the only one that really makes them indispensible. It's how Subaru has continued to exist for the last 35 years. If you're going to build a VAN, there are two requirements to make it meaningful and legitimate: Move people. Move things.
Never once in the entire press release does Volkswagen mention either.
The photos that accompany the press release show a bright, inviting interior bristling with technology, but only four seat belts and headrests. Why build a van if you're only going to have it move four people? That's why you have small station wagons and sedans, right?
The last van Volkswagen sold here -- the Eurovan -- seated eight. The original Type 2 Microbus held nine, depending on configuration. It was a legitimate replacement for a station wagon that offered more utility at a lower price, and used less gas. Isn't there an opportunity to build something like that again?
The Design Doesn't Fit the Mission
If you're going to build something that looks like a van, you're going to fight aerodynamics the whole way. I don't know for sure what its coefficent of drag is, but with that big, flat front end, it can't be all that great. The Volkswagen Vanagon, for example, has an aerodynamic profile slightly worse than a Chevrolet Tahoe.
The reason the Prius looks like it does is because it has a 0.24 drag coefficient, the lowest of any automobile currently in production. If you're building something electric that needs all the range assistance it can get, styling it this way means that the marketing department had a whole lot more to do with this than the engineering department.
The Kia Soul EV is saddled with the same problem. At best, it has a 0.35 drag coefficient, which places it at about the same as a 1994 to 1998 Honda Odyssey, meaning it's really only relegated to driving in the city, rather than out on the open road, further limiting its appeal for average consumers. The entire VW press release only mentions aerodynamic drag once, and it's in reference to the D-pillars at the back of the Concept. There's no getting around that big, flat front end punching a giant hole in the air at 60 miles per hour.
The bottom line is that this project is pure fantasy. We now have Teslas, electric Kias, electric VWs, Nissan Leafs, plug-in hybrids and Volts avaialable at a dealership of your choice. Yet, there has been no real appreciable increase in a network of chargers to supply them anywhere other than California, the perfect place for EV adoption, yet where zero emission vehicles still represent a single-digit slice of the motor vehicles purchased every year.
I'm dying to see an auto manufacturer come to a show like CES and drop a bomb like: "We're not showing a car. We're announcing an open charging network that offers charging stations at 100 mile intervals along the busiest corridors of every major highway in America." Until then, these cars will operate somewhere near the intersection of pure fantasy and "third car besides a Lexus LS430 and a Range Rover."