Electric Volkswagen Microbus Becomes Reality in New Concept

By · March 01, 2011

The VW Bulli concept is the company's latest revival of the Microbus, this time with a fully electric drivetrain.

Unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show today, Volkswagen's new Bulli concept revives the Microbus in modern form and stuffs it full of batteries to turn it into an all-electric vehicle with a stated 186 mile range. On the surface it's an exciting concept that's very close to something I've been audibly pining for with the German carmaker. But it also feels like a bit of a miss.

Just three months ago I was lamenting here on the pages of PluginCars.com how VW was missing an opportunity by not bringing back the beloved microbus in the form of a plug-in hybrid. I had just come back from a trip to Germany in which I test drove the VW electric Golf prototype.

The electric Golf is a solid effort and will be a welcome addition to the growing EV fleet in 2014, when it hits the road, but it didn't seem like it would be able to stand out from the crowd given that almost every other manufacturer will have released their own electric car before then. Shortly after that test drive, rumblings and musings began popping up that VW was once again at work on a modern revival of the Microbus. It struck me that the perfect combination for VW to establish an electric vehicle name for itself would be to turn a modern Microbus into a plug-in hybrid with, say 30-40 miles of electric range and 30-40 mpg after that. Talk about epitomizing freedom on the open road.

So I pitched for it in a post. I was told that VW would never do it because they are too wedded to diesels and are more focused on aggressive growth right now than being cutting edge. But fast forward to today, and VW has now unveiled an all-electric microbus revival called the Bulli (Americans knew the VW Bus by the nickname "Microbus" and Germans knew it by the nickname "Bulli").

Clearly VW has been planning the Bulli for much longer than the publishing of my post 3 months ago, so I can't really take any credit for that, but at least I now know that I'm not crazy and maybe I should've been a product planner.

Top: The VW Bulli concept from behind. It's wider than the original Microbus, but otherwise smaller in every regard.
Bottom: The interior of the Bulli is dominated by two rows of bench seats and an iPad instead of a center console.

Smaller Than the Original, With Front Bench Seats

The Bulli is an interesting concept in that it's much smaller than the Microbus concept VW unveiled back in 2001, although it does keep the same styling cues (in fact, the Bulli is even smaller than the original microbus). The 2001 concept had room for 7 people seated in traditional minivan configuration. The new Bulli concept has room for 6 people, but it only has two rows of seats.

To fit three people in in each of the two passenger sections, VW used bench seats in both the front and rear rows. When's the last time you saw bench seats in the front of a car? It's kind of a cool thought, but then again it's completely impractical for modern cars. Safety-wise it's a non-starter (not that I'm opposed to it, just try getting it past the crash tests). Given its diminutive size, it's also completely impractical for actually fitting three people shoulder to shoulder in the front. So really, it's only a 5 seater like any other mid size car or small SUV.

186 Miles of Driving Range and an iPad for a Center Console

It's a good touch that they've included plans for 40 kWh of batteries in the Bulli, allowing for more than 180 miles of driving range on a charge—but I wonder how much that would cost in a real vehicle. Who's going to pay $50-60,000 for a vehicle like the Bulli? VW claims the Bulli would be able to go from 0-60 mph in about 11.5 seconds and would have a top speed limited to 87 mph.

It's pretty slick that VW has taken the entire center console out of the Bulli and replaced it with a removable iPad. This is actually something I see happening sooner rather than later in many cars—it's a natural progression of the order of things.

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The Microbus concept VW showed off in 2001 much more closely represented the original spirit of the Microbus.

The Bulli is a Cool Concept, But it's No Microbus

Although it's a concept, VW indicates that the Bulli has the potential to join up with the other people carriers in the VW lineup, saying it "could even become an icon like the [original Microbus] that still trades at extremely high prices today—one of those few vehicles that simply do not fade with time."

When I think of the Microbus concept—freedom, camping, itty-bitty sinks and pop-up tops—the Bulli just doesn't jibe with those notions. One of the main problems is that VW already showed off a concept modern Microbus in 2001 that looks better than the Bulli and represents the vibe of the original Microbus better.

As much of a proponent of all-electric drivetrains as I am, you're just never going to take the Bulli cross country on a trip to Yellowstone with the family. And that's what the Microbus is all about. That's why it needs to be a plug-in hybrid the same size (but a little wider) as the original Microbus. The Bulli is a cool concept along the lines of an electric Scion xB, but it's no Microbus revival. Take a slightly updated version of the 2001 concept and develop a plug-in hybrid drivetrain for it and you've got a winner.

VW, you're getting closer, but the darts are still landing shy of the center.

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