Reinvention ain’t easy—just ask Blockbuster how well that DVD rental to streaming video transition went.
Volkswagen, long the poster child of efficient diesel transportation, is going through a similar (though hopefully far-more successful) transformation after its diesel emissions scandal, pivoting from diesel engines to a new family of electric vehicles, called I.D.
Ever pragmatic, VW knows it needs a global halo of sorts for its new I.D. lineup, which includes the not-for-U.S. Volkswagen I.D. hatchback and the global VW I.D. Crozz crossover. Both are acceptable if a bit bland, but neither meaningfully moves the needle into gotta-have-it territory.
Which is how I found myself in Los Angeles’ bro-hemian Venice Beach, behind the wheel of the VW I.D. Buzz concept. Slated to go into production in 2022, two years after the I.D. and I.D. Crozz, Volkswagen hopes the reborn electric Microbus will build buzz and amp up customers for its new I.D. lineup. Yes, this stuff writes itself.
The I.D. Buzz is a lot like Venice, where you’re just as likely to find hippies in drum circles and people living in their vans as you are the nouveau riche and tech bros in multistory modernist modules.
Its styling is a callback to VW’s free-love heyday. VW Group’s new modular MEB platform is the host for all three I.D. vehicles—which allows Volkswagen to nail the Microbus proportions and design of the I.D. Buzz, in that it artfully blends old styling cues with new. The cabin, which seats up to eight, is as versatile as the original, with seats that convert the cabin into a lounge or even a bed.
Underneath the I.D. Buzz’s retro sheetmetal is a modern platform with a floor-mounted battery, front and rear electric motors, and electrical architecture that should eventually allow the production version to drive autonomously. A caveat: The I.D. Buzz concept runs and drives, but it’s a long way off from what the production version will be like.
This one is more of a proof of concept, powered by an e-Golf powertain with 200 miles of range and limited to a mere 20 mph. But the production version should be able to go farther, faster. VW says there will be three powertrains with three battery sizes—a rear-drive 201-hp motor paired with a 60 kWh battery, a 302-hp dual-motor all-wheel-drive version with an 83 kWh battery, and another dual-motor all-wheel-drive version with 368 hp and a 100 kWh battery. Volkswagen says the production version should be able to travel between 250 and 310 miles on a charge.
For a hand-built concept, the fact that VW is confident enough to turn me loose on a half-mile stretch of Venice’s bustling Abbot Kinney Boulevard says a lot (though in retrospect, I did have an LAPD escort and two VW minders).
Press the “D” on the I.D. Buzz’s rectangular steering wheel to engage the concept’s single forward speed, tap on the accelerator (it’s helpfully marked with the “play” symbol; the brake gets the pause symbol), and the I.D. Buzz motors off smoothly and quickly like any run-of-the-mill EV. There’s not a ton of regeneration once off the throttle, but the brakes thankfully bite pretty well. The I.D. Buzz feels pretty agile considering its handmade tires, though its turning circle is wider than expected, an issue amplified by the oddly shaped steering wheel.
With five years to convert the I.D. Buzz from concept to reality, VW has plenty of time to make the I.D. Buzz fun to drive—something the original Microbus was in a prehistoric, underpowered way. Even if the I.D. Buzz drives like the original when it and its cargo van variant go on sale in 2022, it won’t matter—the crowds mobbing the concept in Venice show VW’s mission is already accomplished.