Though it kind of looks like it rolled out of a sci-fi flick (more so than most modern concepts, we think), the car you’re looking at is the spiritual successor to one of VW’s most famous and beloved vehicles: the Microbus, which along with its smaller stablemate the Beetle, became a multi-generational pop-culture icon.
Volkswagen has been teasing the return of a Microbus-like vehicle for a while, at least since the 2001 Microbus concept, which at quick glance bears more than a passing resemblance to the one we see here — the affectionately named BUDD-e.
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.
That’s the dime tour of the Microbus’ history, which we covered when the BUDD-e concept was first teased for the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.
“Volkswagen showcased a retro-futuristic Microbus concept that was met with a huge amount of positive attention,” our own Derek Sapienza said. “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.”
Microbus fervor was revived in 2011 with the Bulli concept, which took the original 2001 concept and made it a bit more 21st-century. That faltered too.
Despite its space-age looks, there seems to be credence to the BUDD-e’s chances of being put into production — Volkswagen dropped some numbers that seem plausible, which is unusual for conceptual vehicles that tend to look better in render than in person. But more importantly, VW gave us a date. From VW:
With BUDD-e, Volkswagen demonstrates what electric mobility could be like by the year 2019. Volkswagen’s new MEB platform will enable a series production car to have pure electric range that is on par with today’s gasoline-powered cars by the end of the decade.
More importantly, its futuristic looks and tech are actually built largely on tech that has been shown by other pillars of the Volkswagen Auto Group. The 80% charge in 15 minutes that VW claims? That was first shown on Porsche’s Mission E. The 373-mile range that Volkswagen is touting? It’s strikingly similar to Audi’s proposed e-Tron Quattro.
The Modular Electric Toolkit that the BUDD-e is built on isn’t a pie-in-the-sky fantasy platform either. It’s VW’s new platform that it will be building all of its electric vehicles on moving forward. “The new MEB delivers a drivetrain architecture that is specifically tailored for the integration of compact electric motors and high-performance, highly-efficient batteries,” the company says. “The 101 kWh battery is flat, to save space, and integrated into almost the entire vehicle floor. It powers two electric motors, one to drive each axle.” BUDD-e is all-wheel drive.
Of course, that nifty bench setup inside will be put through NHTSA scrutiny and likely won’t see production, and the flashy digital dash will likely be toned down. But put all together, the elements to build VW’s BUDD-e Microbus are there. Even the gesture control system shown alongside BUDD-e at CES is being implemented into the e-Golf — gesture control’s first large-market application.
In a post-dieselgate society, Volkswagen is doubling down on EVs, and the BUDD-e would go a long way in helping the company get its mojo back. Volkswagens have always been the sort of quirky odd alternatives to sanitized Japanese sedans and their equally vanilla American counterparts. The Routan confirmed that VW was selling out to mass-market tastes, while leaving its personality behind. Recovering from the diesel scandal that affected millions of cars around the world is giving the company — now under new leadership — a chance to get back to its tradition of odd but lovable vehicles that over the last several years has been abandoned for sales ambitions.
Welcome to Earth, BUDD-e.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.