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Yes, It's Really Time for VW to Revive Its Iconic Microbus

Volkswagen's iconic Microbus was called the Bulli in Europe, and that's what VW is calling a new electric-powered concept for its fondly remembered people mover. VW just unveiled the concept at the Geneva Auto Show and there's currently no production plan -- but there should be.

VW's recent vans have been competent but boring, and Routan sales were down 36 percent in February. U.S. family buyers, who have been moving from big SUVs to crossovers and even (gasp) minivans again, would welcome this stylish entry with retro flair (right down to the two-tone paint and big VW logo on the nose).

A long tale: sunshine and flowers
The Microbus, originally sketched in 1947, has a colorful history. It took groups of hippies to Woodstock and proudly wore its plastic flowers -- it was a product of its era, but not one that the company has yet tried to revived a la the New Beetle.

VW seems unclear how to proceed. Volkswagen introduced its first Microbus concept (at right), also in Geneva, exactly 10 years ago. This was just three years after VW had enjoyed huge success with the nostalgic Beetle makeover. The first concept version was full-sized, with three rows of seats, and stunningly beautiful in a very retro way. I was at Woodstock in 1969 -- no, really -- and the Microbus Concept immediately struck me as a likely big hit.

But VW abandoned the project (which was, fittingly, designed at the company's California studio), citing high production costs. Sunshine and Microbuses always went together, and that was readily apparent in VW's period marketing video, which features surfboards, windsurfers and skateboards. The idea at the time was a cross between a minivan and an SUV:

From V-6 to batteries
The 2001 concept car was powered by a 231-horsepower V-6, a rather interesting contrast to the new van's 85-kilowatt electric motor and 40-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack (which promises a zero to 60 time of 11.5 seconds). But VW says a gasoline-engine drivetrain would fit, too.

There's a void in the market for a hybrid or electric minivan, but in that form it would probably be fairly expensive. The gasoline or diesel version would sell much better, but there could be several drivetrain options. The Bulli is smaller than the earlier concept, about the size of a Mazda5, and that means it loses the third seat but would compensate with good fuel economy. It's not quite as cool looking as the earlier one, but it would be cheaper to produce.

VW still has a fun-in-the-sun youth market in mind, even though it's families that buy minivans. The Bulli uses a removable iPad as a touchscreen to handle the Bluetooth phone and navigation, and the mounting includes the climate controls.

The sound system is by guitar and amplifier legend Fender, and VW notes helpfully, "At Woodstock in 1969, Jimi Hendrix played 'The Star-Spangled Banner' on a Fender Stratocaster guitar." If festival goers could have voted, they would have made the Microbus the official transportation. And a revamped version could go on producing memories for a new century.

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Photo: Volkswagen
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