We use an air-cooled, 21-window Bus from 1967 as a crystal ball to study VW’s EV future.
It's old news that Volkswagen is planning to introduce a production version of the ID Buzz electric van at some point in the next few years. But so far, all we've seen of that vehicle is a concept that draws heavily on the spirit and styling of the brand’s classic Microbus. How much of that concept will carry over to production is impossible to say, though.
In a bid to answer that question, I’m looking way past the ID Buzz concept and venturing back to 1967 with a 21-window Volkswagen Type 2 Samba Microbus. Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the Vietnam War was raging, and the flower-power movement was at its zenith during the Summer of Love, as hippies crisscrossed the country in vehicles like this three-row van.
While I have no plans to break into an acoustic guitar solo, smoke a little grass, or crank Jerry Garcia (sorry Deadheads), driving this 53-year-old VW gave me plenty to wish for when its all-electric successor arrives in 2022. Here's what I’d like to see from a production ID Buzz, based on its most popular ancestor.
Make It Spacious
The 1967 Microbus has a bench-style front seat along with benches in the second and third row. I’m not too crazy about going three abreast in front, especially with a manual gearbox, although a Bus-like EV wouldn't have such a contraption, so a bench might be a fun novelty. Combine that with the flat, spartan dash and the minimal overhangs, and the result is a roomy front seat, even if the upright pedal position tends to wear on the driver. At the moment, though, the ID Buzz concept has a traditional center console with a flip-up tablet-holding thingy – meh.
The rear two rows on my van were as good as it gets, taking advantage of nearly the entire width of the Microbus. There were only seatbelts for three, but I’m confident I could fit four (or even five, if they're friends) across in the back two rows. There is also a huge amount of legroom in both rows, and I dig the fixed bulkhead that separates the first and second rows while also giving the Bus some semblance of torsional rigidity.
While the bulkhead might not be necessary in a stiff, modern car that benefits from a low-mounted battery pack, I sincerely hope Volkswagen will replicate the Samba's spacious interior while also adding an additional row – the concept had just a single big rear bench. This old van is open and able to accommodate many people comfortably, which explains the communal reputation the Microbus had in its heyday. The new version needs to replicate that rep.
Gallery: Volkswagen I.D. Buzz at Pebble Beach
Make It Airy And Skip The Air Conditioning
I mean this literally and figuratively. The 21-window Bus feels like an incredibly open thing; an entire belt of glass surrounds it, accounting for 13 windows, while four windows per side sit just above the roofline. You get huge amounts of light in the cabin, making the already expansive place feel even more open still. At the same time, your sightlines are fantastic. After years of cameras and ultrasonic sensors spoiling me, the Microbus' huge windows and short overhangs make it an easy and refreshing thing to maneuver in tight conditions (even without power steering).
The windows can let the light in, but they can also let a lot of air in. Occupants can open all but the three rear windows and the roof-mounted portholes to let fresh air flow through the cabin. I love the Safari-style windshield panes, which tilt up, while the front side windows slide open. In back, every row gets pop-out windows like you'd find at the very back of a modern minivan.
Additional cooling is available via a ram-air intake just above the windshield, which channels air into a vent that the driver can either distribute rearward or to the two front seats. It's all very clever for keeping the cabin comfortable. I drove the bus in the height of Michigan's humid, sticky summer and rarely wanted more comfort.
Alas, I didn't mess with the Samba's fabric sunroof, but rolling it back would have certainly made the cabin feel airier. Perhaps the modern version will adopt something similar. At the same time, we'd love an all-electric pop-top camper, or perhaps a solar roof for charging accessories while the bus is parked.
Could you do any of this on a modern electric vehicle? The roof bits, sure. Obviously, ditching air conditioning would be a boon for range, although any advantage would probably vanish as soon as you start popping open eight or nine different windows to catch the air. My bigger concern, though, would be on how the car crashes. While you can fit a bunch of windows in a vehicle shaped like the Microbus or ID Buzz, thick pillars are necessary to protect the cabin. I’d love to see a design like this arrive in 2022, but I’m not holding my breath.
Make It Simple
My Samba has a speedometer, a fuel gauge, a radio, and a clock on the dash. That's it. Volkswagen, resist the urge to fit some gaudy touchscreen or a massive digital instrument cluster. Keep it simple – give us a speedo and a charge meter. Make the charge amperage controls toggle switches and stick them where the Samba's radio would be. Keep the interior as simple as possible. I abhor this phrase (thanks Game of Thrones and Star Wars) but subvert expectations here.
While I’m not sure Volkswagen can pull off a simple interior in line with this 53-year-old Type 2, I’m more confident about the exterior. The ID Buzz is already a very handsome take on the original Microbus that manages to hide modern necessities – hello crumple zones, I missed you – inside a retro-futurist finish. If there's anything on this wish list Volkswagen will nail, it's the exterior styling.
Forget About Speed
Holy moly, the original Microbus is slow. Very, very slow. My test unit featured an air-cooled 1.5-liter gas engine that produced 53 horsepower when new. Mated up to a charmingly old-school, four-speed manual transmission, I never saw over 60 miles per hour in testing. Should a modern, all-electric Microbus be this slow? Absolutely not.
But at the same time, VW should be careful not to go power mad. Electric motors have tremendous performance potential, but the Microbus' character really lends itself to relaxed cruising. Sure, give us torque off the line, but in terms of zero-to-60 runs, an all-electric Microbus should only be about as quick as a 2.0-liter Atlas. And while I’d like to avoid huge amounts of power, the benefit of all-wheel drive via two electric motors (one on the front axle, one on the back) is hard to ignore.
I doubt VW will take my advice about limiting performance, though, because it's kind of crazy in today's world – can't wait for an ID Buzz R!
Be An Icon First, And An EV Second
This is the most important suggestion I can pass along. The Microbus is an icon – quite literally everywhere I went with it, the Creamsicle-colored van drew attention. Unquestionably, there is going to be the temptation to focus on the electric powertrain and its range, charge time, and available power when the production ID Buzz arrives – Volkswagen needs to resist it.
Take a page from Tesla, a brand that had zero heritage to draw on when it broke onto the scene – it built lifestyle vehicles that people wanted to be seen in, but they also just happened to be good electric cars. That's the approach Volkswagen needs to mimic with the ID Buzz, particularly as its nascent range of EVs should already be on the scene by the time a successor to the Microbus arrives.
The ID Buzz has the look of such a vehicle, but there needs to be more. It needs to be unlike any other vehicle on the road, from the driving character and user experience to the lifestyle a funky, small van promotes. In other words, the ID Buzz needs to be just like this 1967 Microbus.
See the 2022 Volkswagen ID Buzz and all of the other upcoming new electric cars and SUVs in our list of future cars.