MILTON KEYNES, England — Before climbing into the VW ID.Buzz for a first drive in Volkswagen’s reborn and electrified bus, let’s turn back the clock to see how we finally got to this point. And acknowledge that Americans are going to be waiting even longer.
In 1950, the first Volkswagen buses were imported to the United States. History doesn’t recall exactly when these clattering, air-cooled vans first became a symbol of American counterculture, but by the Woodstock Festival in 1969 they were parked up in the Bethel farm field complete with “Make Love Not War” and “Ban the Bomb” slogans painted on the flanks.
In the 1970s, Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers traveled in a VW bus, and in 1995, when Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead died, Volkswagen America ran a simple line drawing advertisement of the first-generation van with a single teardrop coming out of one headlamp.
Cheap and economical, and unlike anything else at the time, the VW bus was an antidote to the gargantuan V8 engines of the period. These were the vans in which we stopped working for The Man and tuned in and dropped out before tripping off to San Jose or Big Sur to meet the girl or boy of our dreams. Or so we thought at the time. Until 2014, the original VW bus was still in production in Brazil and still much prized by surfers and camping types across the world, which really was some endorsement of the original concept.
In 2001, I saw some of this special relationship when VW showed the Charles Ellwood design for a born-again Bus (or Bulli as the Germans reverently call it) at the Detroit Auto Show. This was seven years after the Concept 1 design for a reborn Beetle had been shown, also in Detroit, and there was an adoring reception from the press and American baby boomers clamoring for it to be built.
The feedback was strong enough that the following year, VW confirmed it would put the Microbus into production complete with translucent rubber floors and cute first-generation front end. Then it was canceled.
But this was an itch that VW refused to stop scratching. In 2011 there was the Bulli concept (above left), in 2016 we were treated to the Budd-e (above right), and then in 2017 we saw the concept version of this van, the ID.Buzz (below).
We should be strictly honest here and tell you that VW still produces descendants of the VW van in the form of the T6 commercial and the T7 hybrid, which bear a startling resemblance to the ID.Buzz, but those aren’t electric. In fact, the market for electric commercials is primed for rapid expansion. The Ford E-Transit will go on sale early this year, with an electric Ram ProMaster following at some point later in 2022. Meanwhile, Amazon-backed Rivian has a contract to build 100,000 electric delivery vans, while GM’s BrightDrop is supplying Walmart and FedEx with electric vans.
The basis of the ID.Buzz is, of course, the MEB electronic architecture, which underpins a new generation of VW battery electric cars: VW ID.4 and ID.3, plus the Skoda Enyaq and Cupra Born sold in other markets.
VW is planning two versions of the ID.Buzz: the bus, which will be called ID.Buzz and will cost around £50,000 when it goes on sale (about $67,000); and the ID.Buzz Cargo panel-van version, which will cost around £42,000 ($56,000). Start of production is this spring, with sales commencing this fall in the U.K. and Europe.
In time there will be a longer-wheelbase version with a larger and more powerful battery. That’s the van the Americas will get in 2025, and there will also be an ID.California camper, too, though that’ll be expensive.
For the moment, the van and bus share the biggest-battery version of VW’s MEB chassis with an 82kWh gross and 77kWh usable lithium-ion battery. The cell pack is within the 117.8-inch wheelbase, and the rest of the van/bus is 185.5 inches long, 80 inches wide and 76.3 inches high.
To give some context, the ID.Buzz is a considerable 19.7 inches shorter in length than a Honda Odyssey, but has basically the same wheelbase. It’s also about 2 inches shorter in height. It’s roughly the same size as VW’s existing Caddy and Transporter vans. Interior volume is generous, but its payload of 1,278 pounds is considerably less than those of existing European commercial vans, which are closer to 2,200 pounds.
Like the ID.4, ID.Buzz is rear motored and therefore rear-wheel drive with 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet. Top speed is limited to 90 mph, and the range is quoted at about 250 miles, but that’s on the European drive cycle and is not comparable to those in the United States, including the ID.4’s own 260-mile range. The Buzz will not go as far, and when we climbed into the bus, its trip computer noted an average efficiency of about 2.6 miles per kWh over the previous 500 miles, which puts the total range at about 200 miles.
While the paint job looks like the return of the hippies, it’s in fact a disguise wrap for a European tour for the vehicle, and we snagged a drive in Milton Keynes in the U.K.’s Midlands. We weren’t supposed to look at the interior, but a sneak peek showed a rather lovely cabin upholstery in light cream and terracotta, with interior door trims to match. The fascia had pleasing open-pore wood-panel inserts, double shelves facing the passenger, and a central bin. It all felt nicely retro and well-finished.
The driving position is a bit sit-up-and-beg compared to a big SUV, although views out of the front are good, and the mirrors allow you to accurately place the ID.Buzz on narrow roads.
Unlike the original air-cooled Type 2 vans, where the driver sat virtually over the front wheels, there’s a massive distance between the driver and windshield. Views out of the back through the rearview mirror were partly obscured by the headrests and that vinyl wrap.
The shifter is the right-hand steering-column stalk. Pull it down for Drive and the van pulls away smartly, gathering speed with some alacrity, though most modern vans are geared to be fast away from traffic lights.
The steering is light and well-geared, although at 30 to 40 mph there’s a slight ponderousness about the handling. This is seemingly the result of the long wheelbase and weight, plus the driver’s distance from the front of the vehicle. The 36-foot turning circle, however, is brilliant and makes the ID.Buzz feel highly maneuverable in low-speed turns.
The brakes, too, don’t respond that well on the first push, and the progression between friction and regeneration braking isn’t terribly good. You can select a higher regen factor with the B setting on the gear lever, which helps in urban environments.
There’s a drive mode selection for Sport, Eco and Comfort, although without adaptive damping, all it does is alter the algorithm on the throttle, steering and brakes. Frankly, if you were running this bus as a family transporter, you’d always have it in Eco.
We didn’t have long with the bus, so there wasn’t much time to spend in the rear, but the three-across rear bench seemed comfortable enough. The rear load area with its curious raised false floor seemed more than adequate.
VW’s bus story is long and authentic. This is more than just an automobile, and that perhaps explains why so many feel invested and interested in this vehicle. Perhaps that’s why, on this short drive, the VW ID.Buzz was rather a letdown. Despite its beach-towel wrap, it didn’t feel so very different from the ID.3 and ID.4. The ID.Buzz needs something cleverer in the interior, and perhaps a longer drive over a longer period would help get used to it.
Who knows, this might be an instance when a long wait is worth it, as VW uses the next few years to build more specialness and heart into its bus. Perhaps by 2025, VW’s bus will be a fitting chariot for a new era of love and peace?