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Volkswagen’s dune buggy is an electric shot of nostalgia

Just don’t call it retro

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Dune buggies, according to Volkswagen and some senior Verge staff members, used to be hip. I’m told that young people used to once go driving on California beaches instead of worrying about crippling student loan debt, uncertain job prospects, and unaffordable homes. Hoping to revive the spirit, if not the economics, of the past in a modern all-electric form, Volkswagen has come to the Geneva Motor Show 2019 with a new ID Buggy concept car. Like the ID Vizzion from last year, the Buggy is huge — it has the proportions of a smaller car, but the absolute dimensions of something approaching an SUV — and all the VW logos are lit up with LEDs.

Other than its sheer size, this VW Buggy also catches the eye with a cheery matte-green paint job, exposed wheels with off-road tires, open side skirts, and, of course, the complete lack of any doors or roof. I can’t say that the touch controls on the steering wheel make a great deal of sense in the context of a dirt-loving, dune-raiding buggy, but I’ve seen sillier things crammed into concept cars this week at Geneva.

Like Kia and its Imagine concept, whose dashboard is composed of no fewer than 21 smartphone-sized displays, the VW Buggy is an effort to bring more emotion to the design and appeal of electric vehicles. Instead of trying to convince customers to buy a car on the basis of its better cost efficiency or environmental footprint, manufacturers are trying to elicit an emotional, unreasoning response.

This has already worked on my colleague Thomas Ricker, who sums up his generation’s fascination with Beetles modified into dune buggies thusly: “Growing up with a series of very embarrassing Beetles in the garage, all I ever wanted to do was buy a dune buggy kit to make one cool.” Ironically, Beetles have since become cool by themselves, so he wouldn’t strictly need to modify one, but that youthful yearning remains.

Modification is at the very heart of the ID Buggy concept that VW is showing off, as the vehicle is built atop the company’s Modular Electric Toolkit (MEB, or Modularer Elektrobaukasten, in German). The dune buggy is an exhibition of the versatility of that platform, which Volkswagen this week announced will be opened up to other car manufacturers to license and use as well. So while the ID Buggy is unlikely to be forthcoming from VW in any sort of near-future production run, there’s a good chance that the underlying tech will feature in similarly quirky cars from other brands.

The idea with the MEB is that its standardization will allow car designers to come up with more niche models, such as a dune buggy, without having to worry about selling millions of units to make a product like that financially viable. VW will take care of mass-producing the MEB, while its partner brands will need only concern themselves with devising a chassis and exterior that people will find appealing. Should the VW scheme pan out as planned, we can look forward to a future of ever more diverse and interesting electric vehicles.


Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge