In the ’90s, Volkswagen of America was in crisis mode. After reaching an all-time sales low in 1993, things became so dire that the company considered leaving the American market altogether. Then came the “Concept 1″ in 1994, and almost overnight, Volkswagen was a brand to watch again. The car became the New Beetle, and launched alongside the Mark IV Golf and Jetta for 1998, they were instrumental in putting the brand on its path to become the world’s largest auto maker.
Now, the brand is crisis mode yet again, and it seems like it could be reviving another icon to help get back in the public’s good graces. We know what you’re probably thinking: “it’s gonna be that new Type III Squareback!” Well, it isn’t. In a few weeks at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Volkswagen is preparing to unveil a new retro-inspired concept, and it looks like it could be an all-electric take on its iconic Microbus.
Rumors of the iconic van’s return had begun to circulate shortly before Dieselgate, but now that the company’s image is in the toilet, what better way to get back in the public’s good graces than to remind them that you once built the official ride of the peace and love era, and in an all-electric package to boot? According to Autocar:
Described as a close preview to a planned production version of the Microbus to be produced at Volkswagen’s Puebla factory in Mexico from 2017, the concept is set to showcase a newly developed electric drive system among other contemporary connectivity technologies.
This could hint at another tie with the Microbus’s past: Puebla is home to the North American versions of the Jetta and Beetle. If it’s entering production and coming to Volkswagen’s Mexican facility, it’s likely to share a number of mechanicals with the Beetle again, only this time it’ll be the company’s versatile A5 platform.
Appropriately, the history of the Microbus has itself been a long, strange trip. Its roots go back to the late ’40s, when it became the second vehicle added to Volkswagen’s lineup, and was appropriately named the Type 2 – with Type 1 being the Beetle. With its shoebox shape and widow’s peak beltline, the Microbus stood out from anything on American roads at the time, but offered the unique combination of three-row seating and cavernous interior space while staying relatively compact. It got its first big update in 1968, and another in 1979, before being replaced by a more conventional front-engined, water-cooled van called the Transporter in 1992.
In a weird twist, however, the Microbus proved to be so popular in Brazil that Volkswagen kept the second-generation model in production decades after it disappeared from European and American showrooms. Known as the Kombi, it remained largely based on architecture from the original 1950 Type 2 right until it last rolled off Volkswagen’s São Bernardo do Campo assembly line in 2013.
So while the original Type 2 oddly eclipsed its successive three generations, don’t expect more than an aesthetic similarity from the concept that Volkswagen says “… marks the beginning of a new era of affordable long-distance electromobility.” And while Autocar is fairly certain that it could see production as early as 2017, we’re still skeptical. In 2001, following up on the success that was the New Beetle, Volkswagen showcased a retro-futuristic Microbus concept that was met with a huge amount of positive attention. It was slated to enter production, but was pushed back several times until the project was cancelled in 2005. Car buyers got the Dodge Caravan-based Routan minivan instead. The company tried its hand at the Microbus again with the 2011 Bulli concept, but that didn’t lead to anything either.
While a new Microbus would be a thrill for Volkswagen fans, a retro-style minivan probably won’t move the needle much for average car buyers unless it can be competitive as an affordable long-range EV, as a durable people mover, or both. The original Microbus was a success because it prioritized space and efficiency – the kind of space and efficiency that wouldn’t be able to pass safety and emissions tests today. Even before Dieselgate, the consensus has been that Volkswagen needs a seven-seater to compete in the red-hot SUV-Crossover segment to succeed in the American market. If this new Microbus isn’t an EV, but can pull off what the 2016 Honda Pilot did and find a way to bridge the gap between the two, it could be a major hit. If not, then the Microbus could be an ill-advised walk down memory lane when Volkswagen should be looking forward. This is one we’ll be watching closely at CES.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS