The Volkswagen Bus is back — for good this time, we hope. Four months after its debut at the Geneva show, the one-off Bulli concept car was shipped to Southern California where it met its forebear, a 1963 Type 2 Deluxe fifteen-window bus. Bridging a formidable forty-eight-year age gap, the two time-travelers drew a crowd wherever they went.
The iconic, air-cooled oldie took the hearts of bystanders by storm with its throaty Dylan/Springsteen rasp, while its supergreen, modern electric counterpart was as hush-quiet as most other battery-powered vehicles. More quiet, actually, since the Bulli’s battery packs had to stay in Germany. Normally, the Bulli would be powered by two 20-kWh lithium-ion energy cells feeding a 114-hp electric motor that propels the front wheels. Provisional technical data include 199 lb-ft of torque, 0 to 62 mph in 11.5 seconds, an 87-mph top speed, and 186 miles of range.
First introduced in 1950, the VW Type 2 brings back fond memories of long hair, sweet smoke, free love, and loud music. Familiar features include a slim ignition key made of pressed steel, the famous off-white Bakelite two-spoke steering wheel installed at an almost horizontal angle, an airy footwell dominated by floor-hinged pedals, a spidery gear lever with a matching two-foot-long handbrake, and a painted metal tube in which the long steering column rotates. You sit close enough to the windshield to defrost it by breathing, upright enough to automatically adjust your vertebrae whenever the trailing-arm front suspension hits a ridge or a pothole, and far enough forward to become a very physical part of the negligible crumple zone in the event of a front-end collision. Integrated in the bare-metal dashboard are various pull knobs, a large round speedometer, a small fuel gauge, a clock, and a large pull-out ashtray.
Whereas the rear-engine bus started life as a pragmatic and minimalistic postwar holdall, the new Bulli wants to be a lifestyle tool as well as a practical runabout. Measuring 157 inches in length, 69 inches in width, and 67 inches in height, the cream-over-claret show car, which sits on a 103-inch wheelbase, offers the interior space of a Golf with a footprint barely larger than that of a Polo. The cream-over-tomato-soup ’63 Type 2 is 11 inches longer, but it has three rows of seats, a bigger cargo deck, and lots more head- and legroom.
Four wide-opening doors provide easy access to the Bulli’s two rows of seats, which are much more comfortable than the thin padding and the relatively upright backrests suggest. (Whether the three-abreast packaging can be transferred to production reportedly depends on whether it can meet various safety regulations. For Europe, VW may have to revert to the classic five-seat scheme, but for North America the six-seater may be possible.)
With both rows occupied, the trunk holds 13.1 cubic feet; with the rear bench and the front passenger’s seatback folded, cargo volume soars to 56.5 cubic feet. Although only the driver’s seat is fully adjustable, the Bulli never feels cramped, coarse, or compromised. Behind the multifunctional two-spoke helm is a Technicolor display that connects with an iPad mounted on a swiveling console on the dash. Apart from the obligatory speedometer, the screen provides infotainment, navigation, and vehicle-related readouts. Primary controls (lights, gear selector, and starter button) are grouped left and right of the instrument cluster; touch-pad climate controls can be found on a slim panel below the iPad. Like the popular Type 2 camper van, the Bulli can be converted into a comfortable, totally flat bed for two grown-ups by pulling a couple concealed releases.
Although it looks as if it has just paid a visit to West Coast Customs, the Bulli was engineered and designed as a low-cost alternative to more conventional VW vans available in Europe. The two-tone paint job is a styling statement that we will soon see on other Volkswagen models like the next Passat CC, the second-generation Phaeton, and the Up!, and painting the cabin trim in matte white allegedly doesn’t cost more than black. Contrasting stitching and piping add only a handful of dollars to the budget. What look like aluminum wheels are actually single-piece hubcaps made of a composite-and-chrome mix, and new materials such as foam-sprung seats, neoprene carpets, and PVC-based brightwork further help to reduce parts costs. This basically leaves only three elements that the bean counters might want to take out before the Bulli goes into production: the heavy dual-pane glass sunroof, the expensive full leather trim, and the complex clamshell taillights.
According to the most recent plans, the production Bulli will be engineered to accommodate the battery-powered Golf’s E-drive unit. The Bulli will also offer a pair of 1.4-liter turbocharged-and-direct-injected four-cylinder engines rated at 122 and 140 hp; a 110-hp, 1.6-liter turbo-diesel four; and a full hybrid. In most cases, the transmission of choice will be the seven-speed dual-clutch box familiar to European VW buyers.
Despite weighing only about 2500 pounds — some 700 pounds less than the Bulli concept — our 1963 Bus was not exactly a scorcher. Strangled by a single-barrel carburetor, the 1.5-liter boxer engine suffers from sleepy throttle response and a reluctance to build revs. The four drum brakes feel heavy, the steering is even heavier, and the swing-axle rear suspension is topsy-turvy through bumpy corners. Rowing the spaghetti gear lever through its four speeds is easy work, but the vintage van from Wolfsburg is good for a top speed of only 65 mph and averages 26 mpg or so. How does the new Bulli compare? We obviously can’t comment on the performance because of the missing batteries, but the turning circle is about half a city block smaller, the brakes are comparatively riveting, and the ride is infinitely smoother. Although you sit closer to the ground, the all-around visibility is even better, and the cabin comes with all the modern conveniences that Apple fanatics are used to.
A well-kept Type 2 bus is generally worth at least $30,000 these days, but an original twenty-three-window Samba version with a fabric sunroof can easily double that price; a high-quality restoration recently changed hands for an astonishing $217,800. VW is still coy about production plans for the Bulli, but we would expect a starting price of slightly less than $20,000 when the car launches in mid-2015, as it’s currently slated. In terms of design, what you see here is not yet necessarily a blueprint of what consumers are likely to get. But whatever they do, the decision makers would be wise not to drag their feet for five years as they did with the 2001 Microbus concept — the forerunner to the Bulli — which was eventually mothballed.
The Specs //
On Sale: 2015 (we hope)
Price: $20,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged I-4, 140 hp, 160 lb-ft (est.)