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First Drive: Volkswagen I.D. Buzz Concept

Buzzed driving, in this case, is fun driving

Three days after Volkswagen officially decided its all-electric I.D. Buzz will become a reality, we roamed San Francisco’s streets in a concept version of the car along with a classic 1964 VW Microbus. It was, succinctly, an emotional demonstration of how electric propulsion, autonomous driving, and digitalization will redefine the mission of the automobile in the next 10 to 15 years.

My first school bus was a 30-horsepower ’57 Volkswagen Type 2 (aka the Transporter, Kombi, Microbus, Bus, and “the hippie van”) trimmed with a mix of utilitarian rubber and leatherette. I sat up front, right foot resting on the gray tin blister that protected the headlamp assembly from the inside. There was no radio, no worthwhile heater, and no seat adjustment. But you could play with the five-stop sliding side window until one of the adults on board mercifully intervened. The brassy, catch-the-latch noise remains forever seared into my memory.

Powered by an e-Golf powertrain, the I.D. Buzz Concept managed 53 miles before hitting the halfway point of its charge during our day driving around San Francisco.

The Buzz concept resurrects these recollections and then some. The time-warp 3D transformation from that meager post-war appliance is reborn most of all in the car’s characteristic proportions and trademark silhouette and in details such as the two-tone paint scheme and three horizontal air intakes in the D-pillars. The new shape is easily recognizable as the long-lost family member who has grown and matured over time. Both models are rear drive (all-wheel drive will be optional on the production Buzz), both sit on a remarkably generous wheelbase, and both are spacious and surprisingly easy to get into and out of. From behind the older version’s wheel, the new Volkswagen looks positively huge. That’s what a 26-inch difference in length and a 10-inch increase in width will do to your perception.

“We built this model to be fully operational. So simply go for it. A single charge will safely take you through a 12-hour day.”

Due to arrive in 2022, the I.D. Buzz is slated to be the last of VW’s first batch of production I.D. models. Wolfsburg’s e-attack begins in early 2020 with the Golf-size I.D. and the Tiguan-size I.D. Crozz. In 2021, we expect to see the boxy Touareg-size I.D. SUV and the full-size, seven-seat I.D. Lounge—a crossover coupe with the cabin space of a minivan. The 2022 forecast includes not only the Buzz but also the larger version of the I.D. Aero sedan followed in 2023 by a smaller five-seat derivative. Emotionally derived products such as possible new versions of the Beetle and Scirocco are under consideration, but rather than replacing existing body styles with more of the same, don’t be surprised if next-gen offerings employ the heritage-meets-future approach with a dual-cab pickup truck or a modern reinterpretation of the Karmann Ghia or similar.

Family Resemblance: Though there’s a clear design lineage between the Type 2 and the Buzz, the resemblance is only skin deep.

This I.D. Buzz concept is a runner in the purest sense of the word. It can maintain a steady 50 mph across the Golden Gate Bridge and snake through corners like a slot-car racer. The grabby brakes get on surprisingly well with the home-cooked light gray tires, the turning circle is tight, thanks to the absence of a bulky combustion engine, and the single-speed transmission operated via steering-wheel buttons hooks up with instant-torque vigor. “We built this model to be fully operational,” says Dzemal Sjenar, senior engineer for VW concept cars. “So simply go for it. Don’t worry too much about wear and tear. And rest assured that a single charge will safely take you through a 12-hour day.” This is exactly what we did, pairing the yellow-over-white ambassador of a cleaner tomorrow with the orange-over-cream museum piece, a digital hippie leading its analog ancestor. The original Type 2 (fun fact: the VW Beetle is the Type 1) and its rough, air-cooled engine was kind of a Porsche 356 A with seven seats. It was gutless and notoriously short of breath, and you needed to rev the lungs out of its coughing flat-four in order to build anything resembling momentum.

Dynamically speaking, driving the first-generation 1952 Microbus is a lesson in patience. Its huge, nearly horizontal two-spoke steering wheel turns the front wheels with the precision and ease of a vintage Armenian truck, the spindly gear lever rides the four-speed transmission like a one-legged amateur stilt walker, the heavy clutch must travel a long distance before polishing off 49 lb-ft of torque in one easy lick, the four drum brakes might lock up briefly or pull to either side before getting down to work, and the skinny vintage tires like to let go without warning. The floor-mounted pedals are charmingly Porsche-like, but the throttle response is not. This might have to do with the 3,500-rpm redline and the fact that at last count we could not round up more than 25 horses. It takes just short of forever to reach its top speed of around 53 mph when the bus is traveling on a flat stretch of road.

The I.D. Buzz is altogether different. In top-of-the-line guise, a 150-kW rear motor and a 125-kW motor driving the front wheels for a total of roughly 369 horsepower are allegedly enough to accelerate the bus from 0 to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds. The lesser version combines all-wheel drive with a pair of powerplants rated at a more modest 302 horsepower. The entry-level I.D. Buzz will relay 201 hp exclusively to the rear wheels. The three different power packs are paired with three different battery sizes good for 60, 83, and 111 kWh. Regardless of output, top speeds will be electronically limited to 100 mph. (Volkswagen estimates between 200 and 270 miles of range for the concept Buzz.) The maximum charging power is 220 kW, maximum voltage is 400V, and minimum charge time should be around 20 minutes for an 80 percent state of charge.

The Buzz concept has some features that aren’t likely to make it to production, such as the side-mirror cameras, and some touches that may, like the “Play/Pause” foot pedal designs and the dial-based drive selector.

Like all future electric VWs, the Buzz sits on the brand’s modular electric architecture (MEB). At its heart is a rigid battery cradle located inside a honeycomb frame designed to optimize side-impact protection. Accessible from below for repair and replacement, it accommodates between three and five energy packs positioned to ensure a fixed weight distribution of 48/52 percent front/rear. The MEB layout provides a low center of gravity as well as exceptional space utilization. The front axle relies on MacPherson struts while the rear suspension is a multilink setup. The concept car uses conventional springs and dampers, but by 2022 you will also be able to specify a fully adjustable air suspension. Mounted ahead of the front axle is the variable-rate, variable-effort electrically assisted power steering. Rear-wheel steering will be an option, sources say. The brakes are capable of passive and driver-induced energy regeneration. Although definitive dimensions are not finalized, we hear the show car, which is 194.5 inches long, 77.9 inches wide, and 77.3 inches high with a 129.9-inch wheelbase, is physically quite close to the real thing.

Featuring fully adjustable swiveling seats up front and a sofa-like rear bench, the Buzz concept is designed to accommodate up to eight passengers in style and comfort, though the middle seats were removed for our drive. Like in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the rear side windows can dim for a cocooning effect. Although the concept car comes with a retractable steering wheel as well as an array of sensors and cameras to demonstrate that autonomous driving is very much on the agenda, the timing for these technologies is still unclear. Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess answers with a wink: “At this point, it would be cheaper to hire a human being in a low labor-cost country to monitor the car 24/7. Should a dangerous situation arise, that person would take corrective action over the air.”

At Monterey, restored buses went for between $86,000 and about $100,000. When the I.D. Buzz arrives in 2022, VW intends to sell it at a price north of $45,000.

In San Francisco, though legendary rock music venues such as the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom are no more, certain parts of the city still move to the music of the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Doors. The Haight-Ashbury area in particular remains a sanctuary for flower-power children of all ages, some of whom attended the legendary Altamont and Woodstock festivals, went to see Janis Joplin sing and Ravi Shankar play the sitar, were disciples of Timothy Leary, read and listened to Leonard Cohen, and digged on Zen, dharma, karma, and any other kind of counterculture. Before 1966, LSD was legal in California, and to this day you probably don’t have to search too long for vendors peddling tickets to the Promised Land.

We stop our caravan, and two street urchins quickly stagger over, mumbling “hey, man,” and “what the heck?” through broad smiles revealing incomplete sets of teeth. To celebrate the apparition, they light a thinly rolled brown joint. Like the rest of the quickly gathering crowd, our new friends are torn between old and new. Although the Microbus brings back memories of love, peace, and amphetamine-fueled frenzy followed by going cold turkey, the I.D. Buzz is identified immediately as e-powered by the San Francisco residents who adore Teslas and the Prius. Whoever owns a Volkswagen bus, irrespective of vintage or condition, grinds to a stop, hops out, takes a zillion pictures, then asks the inevitable questions: Are these for sale? How much? When can I buy one? Does it drive OK?

The I.D. Buzz offers ample space inside, having grown by 26 inches in length and 10 inches in width over the original Type 2 Microbus.

The Buzz is much too quick for its arthritic sibling, and it cracks open the door to a new level of near-silent lounge-like roominess. The interior is light and airy, the ergonomics are pleasingly minimalist, and the seating position defines “command.” Strangely enough, the ancient spring-loaded seats of the Microbus cope better with the area’s more suspect roads than the contemporary foam buckets do. And the old-fashioned lever-operated parking brake provides more positive feedback than the new, whirring push-button stopper. But the ride comfort is more than nine clouds better in the 2017 show car, its handling eclipses the top-heavy 21-window bus by a world and a half, and the difference in cornering grip compares like speed carving does to stem turns. Everything in the I.D. Buzz works as if by magic touch. The doors open and close automatically, the camera-operated side mirrors and the reverse camera create a new quality of surround-view, and the electronic brain displays its findings on an extra-large screen between the seats.

When we kicked off the day at Twin Peaks in drizzle and fog, the batteries were 90 percent charged. Almost 14 hours and 53 miles later, the readout had just dipped below the halfway mark—not bad for a provisional preprototype equipped with an e-Golf’s humble drivetrain.

At the Monterey auctions held in mid-August, fully restored Microbuses went for between $86,000 and about $100,000. When the I.D. Buzz arrives in 2022, VW intends to sell it at a price north of $45,000 in today’s money. That’s way too much for some of the remaining hippies, but perhaps it’s a tempting proposal for middle-class families, especially if VW can deliver on brand values like solidity, longevity, and affordability with—hopefully—newfound strengths such as coolness, cleverness, and modernity.

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