2000s / 2010s / German / Volkswagen

The hits and misses of Volkswagen’s bid to bring the Bus back

It’s official: Volkswagen will expand its portfolio of retro-inspired cars by building a Bus for the 21st century. If you’ve been keeping up with auto industry news, you’ll remember the Wolfsburg-based company has toyed with the idea of re-launching the Bus several times since the turn of the millennium. We’re looking back at the concepts that shoulda, woulda, coulda been the Beetle’s stablemate.

2001 Microbus concept

Volkswagen began exploring what a modern-day Bus could look like in 2001, when the original model was still in production in Latin America, and still one of the best-selling models in its segment. The New Beetle was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and people with families and gear to haul around still bought vans, so executives believed bringing the Bus back would keep the momentum going by giving them another sales success. The Microbus concept was one of the uncontested stars of the Detroit Auto Show when it broke cover.

In 2002, Volkswagen announced plans to build the Microbus. Tentatively scheduled to debut three years later, it was set to ride on the same platform as the Transporter — some rumors even claimed it would replace the Transporter altogether. The concept was set up as a people-mover, but turning it into a cargo van would have only required welding in the windows and gutting the interior. However, the production plans got side-tracked, and Volkswagen instead launched a re-badged version of the Chrysler Town & Country minivan named Routan.

2011 Bulli concept

The Bulli was the Bus concept that got the least attention. Unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show, it wore an evolution of the Microbus’ design with a longer front end and, oddly enough, four front-hinged doors. It got a two-tone paint job, large fog lights mounted low on the bumper to echo the original split-window Bus, and chromed hubcaps. However, if you removed the emblem from the back end it could pass as a van built by just about any mainstream automaker in the world. SEAT, Opel, Chrysler, Kia, you name it; it could be anything.

Electric vehicles still weren’t hip in 2011, but the Bulli displayed in Geneva was powered by an all-electric drivetrain. Volkswagen’s press release stressed it could be configured to use gasoline- or diesel-burning engines, which would have likely been the case had it reached production. And we really thought it would, too. According to the same press release, the Bulli could “establish a new, fifth brand of people carrier,” indicating it would join the Caddy, Touran, Sharan, and Caravelle models in showrooms. It never did, though, presumably because van sales collapsed as the market gradually shifted towards crossovers and SUVs.

2016 Budd-e concept

The incessant rumors that pointed to an electric Bus concept were spot on. The Budd-e was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, allegedly to tell both the public and the media that Volkswagen was ready to reinvent itself after the heavily-publicized diesel emissions scandal. The concept’s message was “moving forward, it’s tech and electrification above all.”

It helped that the message was accompanied by a friendly face; an electric, self-driving version of the U.S.-spec Passat wouldn’t have received the same warm welcome as the Budd-e. It was cool as a gadget, but it largely failed to channel the Bus’ heritage. It’s not really shaped like one, the proportions are completely off. It looks more like the Renault Scenic of the future than part of the split-window’s lineage. So, engineers went back to the drawing board and started from scratch.

2017 I.D. Buzz Concept

This is it, folks. This is the concept that will finally spawn a production model, according to Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess. The I.D. Buzz Concept was presented earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show, and Diess told British magazine Auto Express that it was recently approved for production.

The design will be toned down in the coming years, but the overall proportions — and most of the defining styling cues — will make the jump from concept to production with only minor changes. What’s under the sheet metal will stay largely the same, too. That means the I.D. Buzz (a name that won’t stick around) will ride on Volkswagen’s highly modular MEB platform, which is being developed specifically to underpin electric cars. It will come standard with a rear-mounted electric motor, and it will be available with an array of tech features that will allow it to drive itself in the right circumstances.

Tentatively scheduled to debut in 2019, the first MEB-based car will be a hatchback built to replace the E-Golf. A leaked slide from an internal Powerpoint presentation suggests the I.D. Buzz won’t hit the market until 2022. Interestingly, it could spawn a full family of battery-powered passenger- and cargo-hauling models, including a commercial van and a pickup.

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