VW juices famed Microbus for the autonomous era

The VW Buzz concept is built from VW's Modular Electric Drive Kit, or MEB, which also underpins the compact I.D. hatchback concept the automaker showed at the 2016 Paris auto show. Photo credit: TOM WOROBEC

DETROIT -- Volkswagen’s latest conceptual take on its historic Microbus uses a powerful battery pack and two electric motors to transform the once anemically powered hippie-mobile into an all-wheel-drive, high-capacity autonomous minivan.

The I.D. Buzz concept -- to be unveiled by VW on Monday at the Detroit auto show -- features a floor-mounted 111-kWh battery pack and up to 369 hp with an effective range of up to 270 miles under U.S. standards, the automaker said.

The Buzz is built from VW’s Modular Electric Drive Kit, or MEB, which also underpins the compact I.D. hatchback concept the automaker showed at the 2016 Paris auto show.

Like the earlier concept, the I.D. Buzz concept features the automaker’s I.D. Pilot autonomous driving system with a squared steering wheel that fully retracts into the instrument panel when the autonomous driving system is engaged.

VW said it envisions the concept in two different optional powertrain configurations. In some regions, a rear-drive single motor would produce 268 hp and be paired with a smaller 83 kWh battery pack. Elsewhere, the Buzz would employ an all-wheel-drive, two-motor configuration that distributes power from the larger battery pack between the two axles electrically.

VW says that in its all-wheel-drive configuration, the battery-powered I.D. Buzz can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds. The automaker said its battery pack can be recharged to 80 percent of capacity in as little as 30 minutes using high-energy recharging systems.

Inside the cabin, especially in autonomous mode, the I.D. Buzz concept looks more like a lounge than a traditional people-hauler, especially with its railed customizable seating system.

In full autonomous mode, front seats can swivel rearward, with the seatbacks of the center-row seats able to be folded to form tables, and the third-row seating capable of being made into a bed, the automaker said.

“From now on, we will be networking the vehicle much more intensively to make it more interactive,” Tomasz Bachorski, head of interior design of the Volkswagen brand, said in a written statement. “The interior will become a sort of family room, a mobile place where you feel at home.”

Eschews tradition

The I.D. Buzz also eschews a traditional automotive cockpit in favor of a touch-sensitive steering mechanism, an augmented reality heads-up-display, and a large, detachable center-mounted tablet information screen. The configuration allowed designers to increase the space between the first-row seating and the instrument panel by almost 6 inches.

In terms of exterior design, the I.D. Buzz leaves little doubt about its Microbus ancestry, with styling cues taken directly from its historic lineage and augmented with modern touches such as fully integrated LED lighting, animated in a way to react to its driver’s presence. The wheels are mounted at the corners of the concept, giving it a wide stance on its long 129.9-inch wheelbase.

“The overall concept of the I.D. BUZZ points the way to the future,” Frank Welsch, who heads development for VW’s board of management, said in a written statement. “This concept vehicle is the world’s first electric multi-purpose vehicle to be equipped with a fully autonomous driving mode. It carries the feeling of freedom of the Microbus over to a completely new era of mobility.”

'SUV will come'

VW will launch an SUV as its second purpose-built electric vehicle using the MEB modular architecture, debuting a concept of the model at this year's Shanghai motor show in late April.

"The SUV will come, that's been decided," Klaus Bischoff, head of design for the VW brand, told Automotive News ahead of the Detroit auto show.

He declined to say whether the MEB-based SUV due after 2020 would be a compact or mid-size, since the platform is capable of developing vehicles that are over 16 feet in length as shown by the I.D. Buzz microbus concept debuting at the Detroit auto show.

When asked why VW chose to show the Buzz, an MPV, in Detroit, rather than an MEB-based SUV, Bischoff said he wanted to increase the likelihood that the Buzz would generate enough interest to ensure it will go into series production. The SUV by comparison has already been granted approval.

One of the core strategies of Volkswagen to boost its market share in the U.S. has been to roll out more SUVs, like the mid-sized Atlas that was unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show and the long wheelbase version of the Tiguan compact crossover that it also is showing in Detroit.

Debuting the I.D. Buzz in the U.S.’s biggest auto show also hearkens back to the iconic vehicle known by many affectionately as just the "VW Bus."

Especially in West Coast hotspots such as San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Diego, there are parking areas teaming with vehicles from the older Microbus generations according to Volkswagen.

Christiaan Hetzner contributed to this report.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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