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Why Volkswagen keeps making microbus throwbacks it never intends to sell

What emissions scandal?

Photography by Sean O'Kane

Volkswagen unveiled another new microbus concept in Detroit — a total blast from the past that probably won’t have much of a future.

The I.D. Buzz is an all-electric, fully autonomous vehicle meant to harken back to Volkswagen’s glory days of peace signs, bellbottoms, and flower power. If the company actually builds it, the Buzz wouldn’t be the fastest electric vehicle out there, with a top speed of only 99 miles per hour. Nor would it be the most powerful or longest ranging EV, with a 200-kilowatt electric motor and a charging range of only 270 miles.

will Volkswagen ever build this thing?

What it does have, though, is an ability to make a direct appeal to two important demographic groups: nostalgic baby boomers who want to relive Woodstock and retro-obsessed millennials who are addicted to technology. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy, but the question remains: will Volkswagen ever build this thing?

Volkswagen claims the microbus could make it into production by 2025, but that seems overly optimistic. The German automaker released a different minivan concept last year, the BUDD-e. And neither of these cars appear to have much basis in reality. But that doesn’t make them any less fun to obsess over, especially with futuristic features like mood lighting, retractable steering wheels, and driver seats that can swivel 180 degrees.

Another sweet add-on is Volkswagen’s ID pass, a cloud-based user profile that stores specific settings for both drivers and passengers. That means every time you get in, the car will automatically adjust everything to your liking: seat position, air conditioning, music. You name it.  

While the exterior of the I.D. Buzz is playful and inviting, the interior leaves something to be desired. The swivel seats are cool, but the controls are totally bizarre and not entirely intuitive. The foot pedals feature dopey “play” and “pause” symbols, and the dash is almost entirely non-existent. The center console is a bit too much like those arm rests on airplanes that hide foldable tray tables. And there are so many USB ports in this thing it borders on overkill.

But it’s important not to let all these cool concepts distract from Volkswagen’s larger problems with its ongoing diesel emissions scandal. The company has a history of using genius marketing strategies to distract from unsavory business practices or toxic affiliations. Lest we forget, VW was the vehicle of choice for both Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. Just saying.

genius marketing to distract from toxic business practices

“The microbus design inspiration is absolutely a blatant feel good effort,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research, “but I think there is a place for minivans in the future mobility ecosystem.”

Certainly, VW’s entire electrification strategy is partly driven by a desire to move past the diesel emissions scandal in which the company finds itself currently embroiled. Just before the Detroit Auto Show kicked off, a senior executive at the company was arrested by the FBI on conspiracy to defraud customers in the US. And just today, VW announced a preliminary $4.3 billion settlement with the US government. The carmaker says it will continue to work with law enforcement as the investigation into the cheating scandal plays out.

The I.D. Buzz isn’t the only concept built on top of VW’s custom-built Modularer Elektrifizierungsbaukasten, aka Modular Electric Drive kit. At the Paris Auto Show last year, VW unveiled its new all-electric, fully autonomous concept car, all-electric, autonomous the I.D., a sleek silver-and-blue vehicle meant to harken back to the iconic Beetle and Golf.

Volkswagen will always have a place in America’s cultural identity. Vehicles like the Bug and the microbus are icons, and it’s really cool to see the company continue to play around with these classic models as it looks further into the future.