Hopeful whispers about a new Volkswagen Microbus concept have been vibrating air molecules and filling blog pages for much of the five years since Volkswagen last showed a modern minibus concept in the Bulli. It's finally here and it's called the Budd-e. What it lacks in historically honest styling, it makes up for with an explosion of high-tech features big enough to get road trippers, neo hippies, surf bums and daily commuters alike excited for what's to come.
We're going to resist the urge to dive right into a discussion of the Budd-e's styling, the obvious place to start for a vehicle billed as a Microbus for the 21st century. There's just too much weird, out-there maybe-tech behind that disappointing styling to cover. And that's why the concept has premiered at CES and not an upcoming auto show like Detroit or Geneva.
The Budd-e is very much a forward-looking concept, a peek into what Volkswagen thinks it can accomplish by the end of the decade and beyond. The most grounded aspect of the concept is the Modular Electric Platform (MEB) that VW talks about applying to future vehicles. It promotes the new architecture as having the potential to put electric vehicles on equal footing with their ICE-driven counterparts, increasing driving ranges, delivering sharp, quick performance, and packaging electric hardware efficiently enough to leave room for spacious, no-compromise interiors.
The Budd-e design is based around a large, flat 101-kWh battery integrated into a skateboard chassis. That battery sends power to individual motors at the front and rear axles, driving all four wheels over up to 373 miles (600 km) of road per charge, or so Volkswagen's rosy, NEDC-based projection reads. It doesn't expect that type of range to materialize quite yet, but it believes that MEB-based vehicles will get there by the end of this decade. It also believes that it'll get charging down to about 15 minutes for 80 percent charge within that end-of-decade timeframe. Top speed is listed at 93 mph (150 km/h).
It is CES 2016, though, and we can't fault VW for recognizing that it takes more than electric power to wow the jaded, tech-obsessed crowd. Just don't expect to see these technologies on the next Passat model refresh.
Much of Volkswagen's work centers around the Budd-e's human-machine interface (HMI). It tidies up the cockpit by consolidating the instrument panel and center console into a curved display hub mounted behind the steering wheel. A single piece physically, the multi-display hub is split into two distinct areas: an "Active Info Display" in front of the driver and a separate infotainment head unit located centrally for driver and passenger use. Though the Active Info Display is primarily designed to do the heavy lifting, like 3D navigation and presentation of vehicle and trip info, and the head unit for lighter infotainment display, information can be reconfigured around the two areas as the driver sees fit.
Budd-e drivers and passengers have no shortage of options for controlling in-vehicle systems. The concept has advanced voice, touch and gesture control. The voice control system supports natural speech, turning on with a simple "Hello Budd-e" and responding to casual commands such as "Crank the heat up a little." The system also maintains spatial awareness, matching commands to specific occupants, so that it can adjust the climate for a specific seating zone, for instance.
Touch control happens through a combination of the touchscreen displays, touch slider and multifunctional haptic steering wheel that responds to hand pressure and swiping.
Gesture control picks up where last year's Golf R Touch left off, starting before anyone even gets in the car. Infrared sensors identify the person as he or she approaches, and a motion sensor allows the sliding door to open at the wave of a hand. Inside, the gesture control system responds immediately to gestures without having to be turned on.
"Smart car, smart home" is a CES 2016 theme we've already seen in announcements from Ford and Bosch. Volkswagen certainly hasn't missed the boat, imagining the Budd-e using its connectivity for a wide array of home and office functions, including adjusting the thermostat, turning the lights off and checking in on the kids. It's enlisted the help of smart home partners like LG and DoorBird to work on more advanced smart home operations like proximity light activation when approaching the driveway and security system integration that lets you see and speak to visitors on your doorstep from behind the wheel.
With its CES 2016 concept, Bosch detailed how the connected car could help a driver accept home deliveries remotely. Volkswagen goes one step further, showing the Budd-e with a package-accepting "drop box." The idea is that the drop box slides out in response to a digital access code, and the delivery person (or perhaps drone) drops the package in and closes it up. Volkswagen explains the feature in terms of ordering vehicle-specific parts, such as windshield wipers, but such a drop box could also be useful for any type of delivery that you might want to get immediately when away from the home or office.
Of course, if you have your own Rinspeed Etos assistant drone to pick the package up for you, you won't need to wait on the delivery service like the older, simpler folk.
A couple of other hypothetical technologies worth mentioning are the wireless in-car inventory and reminder system that keeps track of items placed in the car with adhesive transmitter tags and the laser-projected "easy open" function that lets an authorized user "kick" open the hatch.
And that's about all the semi-useful, futurey car tech we can handle from one concept car. Time to move on to the styling.
When we heard renewed whispers about an all-new Microbus concept in recent weeks, we actually forgot all about Volkswagen's ongoing diesel scandal, at least momentarily. Wolfsburg seemed like it might change the conversation ... right up until it showed its hand. After the official reveal, the folks at Volks have even more apologizing to do.
We knew the styling wouldn't be anything like the authentic T1-based ZelectricBus, but we thought it'd at least be in line with the 2011 Bulli concept or 2001 Microbus concept. Instead, Volkswagen abandoned every beloved styling point of the iconic buses of yore in favor of a plainer, more generic design. The stout shape and broad surfaces have been whittled away into a meek, tapered, gently sloped minivan. It's certainly no T1 or T2, and it's not even a T3 to T6.
It looks small to our naked eyes, but the Budd-e does measure much larger than the 2011 Bulli. It slides in between the current Touran and T6 Multivan at 181 x 76.3 x 72.2 in (460 x 194 x 183 cm, L x W x H). Short 27-in (69-cm) front and 28.9-in (73-cm) rear overhangs leave a sizable 124.1-in (315-cm) wheelbase in between.
As much as we don't like the overall package, VW does a pretty good job dressing it up. LEDs handle front and rear lighting duties, highlight the character line with a thin strip of light, serve as backlighting for the front emblem, and illuminate the edges of the rear drop box. External side-view cameras and electronic door opening mechanisms keep the sides clean.
Get acquainted with the various ins and outs of the Budd-e design in our full photo gallery and tell us what you think.