Opinion: Volkswagen’s long road to revive the Microbus

Volkswagen finally made good on its promise to resurrect the iconic T2 van after 21 years, four concepts and seven chairmen, as well as a PS20bn plus diesel emissions scandal.

The plans to revive the Microbus date back to 2001, when Volkswagen’s Ferdinand Piech, the mysterious head of Volkswagen, presented a retro-inspired MPV called the Microbus at Detroit’s motor show.

The fifth-generation Multivan was the inspiration for the seven-seater. It was designed by the same California-based design studio that created the New Beetle. It featured many of the same exterior design cues as the original T2 Volkswagen commercial van, which was sold between 1950-1975, but in a larger size at 4722mm.

The interior features art deco accents, three rows of seats and a spacious interior. This first of four concepts to revive the spirit and spirit of the Microbus was designed to be able to run a variety front-mounted combustion engines.

Ironically, however, given the driveline for the new ID Buzz, our Microbus concept in New York that year was powered, as suggested by the paperwork, by a small electric engine, “for transport mobility purposes”.

The original Microbus concept received a tremendous response, especially in the US where Volkswagen wanted to increase its sales and improve its reputation for making reliable, but conservatively designed cars and commercial vehicles. The Microbus’s retro styling, just like the Beetle, successfully resuscitated the free-living spirit from the 1960s in an automobile world that was increasingly distracted by larger and more thirsty SUVs in 2000.

After internal tests were conducted to ensure that the Microbus would pass all applicable crash test legislation, Bernd Pischetsrieder (then Volkswagen chairman) gave it the green light for production. He announced that it would be manufactured at the company’s Hanover, Germany commercial vehicle plant, beginning in 2005. Volkswagen even stated that the price would be “around $30,000”.

“The design has been approved. The design is now much more refined with retro elements combined with a modern vehicle that’s very attractive. In the interview with Autocar at the Frankfurt motor show 2003, Pischetrieder stated that we expect approximately 50% of our volume will be sold in the USA.

However, his plans didn’t last very long.

According to people involved in the project, when Pischetsrieder was removed as Volkswagen chairman in 2006 by the German car manufacturer’s board, the decision to make the Microbus was swiftly overturned. This was due to a wave cost-cutting measures initiated by Wolfgang Bernhard, his direct successor as chairman.

Volkswagen was somewhat traumatized by the initial attempt to revive the Microbus. It took eight more years before it reintroduced the Microbus concept as a separate model to its Multivan, with the unveiling at the 2011 Geneva motorshow of the Bulli concept. Bernhard had already left Wolfsburg, and Martin Winterkorn took over his position. Martin Winterkorn also oversees the operation of the Volkswagen Group, just as Piech or Pischetsrieder.

The Bulli is smaller than the Microbus concept at 3960mm. It was built on Volkswagen’s MQB platform.

The Bulli was developed by Volkswagen’s passenger vehicle department, rather than the commercial vehicles division that created the Microbus concept. It had a six-seat interior, and was marketed as an MPV alternative for the Caddy, Touran Sharan, Sharan, and Multivan.

The Bulli was suggested by Volkswagen Chairman Winterkorn at its unveiling. It could be made alongside the reborn Beetle at Volkswagen’s Peubla plant, Mexico. It was ultimately deemed too small to be used on the US market, and all plans for production were abandoned.

Volkswagen presented the electric-powered Budd-E concept five years later. Although Volkswagen was heavily criticised for the Dieselgate cheating scandal, it still believed in the potential sales of a Microbus.

It was unveiled at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas. It showcased Volkswagen’s plans to create an electric car platform. The so-called MEB structure (Modular Elektrik Baukasten), is the foundation for all existing ID-branded Volkswagen models, including the ID Buzz.

The four-seat Budd-e, described as a “gateway into the future”, was meant to be the centerpiece of an ambitious electric car initiative initiated by Matthias Muller (who had succeeded Winterkorn in 2015). It measured 4597mm in length and was considerably larger than the Bulli concept. However, it was not as long as that of the Microbus concept from 15 years ago.

The Budd-e concept was displayed in Las Vegas and boasted a dual-electric-motor driveline that produced 302 bhp, 361 lb ft, and a large, 95kWh lithium ion batteries. Muller claimed it could travel up to 331 miles using the NEDC test cycle. This is 213 more than the Volkswagen e-Golf.

However, the Budd-e’s path to production was halted when another change occurred in the Volkswagen chairmanship. Muller, who was closely connected with Winterkorn (the man at the center of the Dieselgate scandal), was replaced by Herbert Diess, former BMW R&D boss.

Even though the Budd-e was rejected, Diess instead opted for a smaller hatchback-like model that would be the basis of the first ID-branded model. The Volkswagen ID 3 was the result. Diess provided increased funding to the company’s design department and gave them a brief to produce a van with the same style as the original but built on the MEB platform. The ID Buzz was born.

It was first shown at the 2017 Detroit Motor Show. The retro-futuristic design made it a huge hit with media and the public. It was reminiscent of the original Microbus concept from 2001, which attracted similar calls for its production.

Autocar spoke with Diess, who said: “The Volkswagen brand’s big electrical offensive starts in 2020 with a completely different vehicle architecture. We will then launch a new generation fully connected, all electric vehicles. We aim to sell one million of these vehicles each year by 2025. Volkswagen is making electric mobility its new trademark.

The ID Buzz concept measured 4941mm in length and was 344mm wider than the Budde. The concept showcased four-wheel drive capabilities and featured a dual-electric motor driveline that produced 369bhp. This was sufficient according to Volkswagen at the time. It could reach 0-62mph in 5.0 seconds and top speed of 100mph theoretically.

The fourth attempt by Volkswagen to revive the spirit of the original Microbus was so well-received that it took only seven months before Diess announced plans for the Buzz to be put into production to serve as the “spiritual figurehead” for the ID sub-brand.

Autocar spoke to Diess shortly after, saying that the MEB platform was crucial in allowing the electric motors to be placed underneath a flat floor. It has allowed us to create an exterior similar to the Microbus original Microbus, especially the design of its front end. This is critical.”

Volkswagen’s ID Buzz Cargo concept was unveiled at the Hanover 2018 commercial vehicle show. It previews plans for a longer-wheelbase MEB platform and a 111kWh lithium-ion battery. This could theoretically give a range of 372 miles using the NEDC cycle. That’s 41 miles more than the Budd-e claimed.

The ID Buzz, which now includes the ID 3, Volkswagen ID 4, ID 5, and ID 6, was originally intended to be the ID 7. The original plan was to call the ID Buzz the ID 3, Volkswagen ID 4, Id 5, and Id 6, but Diess, who resigned as chairman of the Volkswagen brand in 2020, loved the Buzz name so much, he decided that it should be kept for the production version.

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