“Iconic” is a word much abused by motor industry’s marketeers and public relations specialists, but in the case of the Volkswagen Microbus it is apt. So VW’s decision to show a latterday concept version of the “hippiewagen” at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show was arguably a brave piece of design and engineering.
Called the Bulli (a name that harks back to the 1950s' VW Transporter 2), it is a six-seater with an overall length of 3.99 m (157.1 in) and stands 1.7 m (66.9 in) tall. Its wheelbase of 2.62 m (103.1 in) compares to a Golf's 2.58 m (101.2 in). Very short overhangs are distinctive design cues.
Owners past and present of original Microbuses will probably applaud the Bulli’s environmental emphasis, with an 85-kW electric motor and a lithium-ion battery, which is tucked away in the vehicle’s sandwich floor. Indicated range is 300 km (186 mi). A regular internal-combustion engine (gasoline or diesel) is an option for those who do not have a vase of flowers on the dashboard.
Unlike the original Microbus, the Bulli is front-engine and front-drive. Load capacity according to seat configuration (two three-place benches) varies from 370 to 1600 L (13.1 to 56.5 ft³).
Many aspects of the new Bulli concept are a far departure from the original Transporter/Microbus. A removable iPad is positioned in the center console to provide multifunctional touch-screen capability. VW explained at Geneva that, together with Internet applications and media center, it could look after telephone and navigation functions.
Driver controls are very simple: a rotary switch to select forward or reverse gears and a push start button for the electric motor.
A development of a concept seen in 2001 but not taken into a production program at that time, the Bulli can trace its design origins to 1947 when VW engineers built flat platforms on stripped-down Beetle chassis to create transporters (Transporter Type 1) to ferry parts round the Wolfsburg factory. Then Dutch VW importer Ben Pon sketched a design for a box van, again based on a Beetle platform.
Essentially it looked like a shrunken version of a single-deck omnibus—i.e., a microbus. It was the basis for the Transporter Type 2, which entered series production once its aerodynamics were improved (the original had a Cd of around 0.75 but later trimmed to 0.44). The Samba Bus and Camper Box followed; ultimately 90 body combinations were created, ranging from ice-cream vans to fire engines. In the 1960s, U.S. hippies adopted the camper van as a countercultural symbol.
The Transporter was originally powered by a 1.1-L air-cooled Beetle engine producing 18 kW (24 hp), and maximum speed was not quite 100 km/h (62 mph).
Early indications are that the new Bulli is likely to become a production reality as a novel but practical departure from conservative VW models such as the Sharan and Touran.
Apart from the allusion to the Golf’s wheelbase, VW has given no firm indications of the likely underpinnings of a production Bulli, but it could use the architecture of other current models in the range (Passat) or scheduled for introduction shortly.