VW's diesel emissions violations provoked outrage around the world and prompted a review of the company's strategic goals while derailing an aggressive multiyear U.S. growth plan and toppling executives in Europe and North America.
The crisis forced VW to back off a strategy to meet more stringent fuel economy standards with efficient diesel engines and to more fully embrace electric vehicles.
The I.D. Buzz is part of a trio of planned models on the company's new MEB platform, which will rely on a flat and thin battery to power vehicles with a range of some 270 miles per charge.
The batteries will be positioned under the floorboard to eat up as little cabin space as possible.
Klaus Bischoff, head of Volkswagen brand design, said the move to an electric powertrain allows for a more open and flexible interior for either passengers or cargo. But it also allowed designers to give the van something he said has been lacking for decades: "a sympathetic face."
"Our vans had to have grilles to permit airflow for their engines," Bischoff told Automotive News during the Pebble Beach unveil. "Cars have been moving to more aggressive grilles. It's not a friendly look."
He pointed to the grille-less front end of a 1960s-era VW bus on display at the event. It featured a flat, colorful body panel with a large round VW logo instead of a metal grille.
"We want to return to a happy look," he said, "and the EV approach makes that possible."
On his visit to Pebble Beach, brand chief Diess wanted to see for himself just what Americans think of his vans. He and an entourage traveled to a nearby windy beach to take photos.
As soon as the cheerful neon yellow and gray I.D. Buzz concept vehicle, with a surfboard on its roof, was parked, beachcombers walked over. They asked questions, peered inside and did what many American consumers do at the appearance of a decades-old Microbus — share their personal memories of VW campers in the 1960s and '70s.
Diess said it was an eye-opening moment.
"It really is part of the California culture," he marveled later.
"We've tried six or seven times to bring back the Microbus over the years," he said. "It was never right. When you added an engine to the design, it changed everything.
"But now, with our new platform, as an EV, we can finally design it like it should be."