Volkswagen unveiled the electric-powered Bulli concept at the Geneva Auto Salon last week. The buzz on this side of the pond is that the new-age Microbus that America has been awaiting since the first New Beetle is finally here. VW’s North American chief, Jonathan Browning, has said he’d love to have a T1/Microbus-style minivan to sell here.
Browning needs all the North American-friendly product he can get. Wolfsburg has charged him with the goal of selling 800,000 Volkswagens in the United States by 2018. Last year, VW sold just under 257,000 vehicles, fewer than either Subaru, the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Browning’s first shots at the goal are the cheaper, decontented 2011 Jetta and Tennessee-built 2012 Passat.
Bulli, even with an internal combustion engine replacing the concept’s electric motor, is no Jetta or Passat. If sold here, it would fit in with other lower-volume, Euro-centric VWs already sold here like the Golf, CC and Touareg. What Browning needs, for volume, is a minivan with the Bulli’s styling stretched over the new, 110.4-inch wheelbase Passat’s large midsize platform. VW of America needs a Microbus roughly the size of the concept shown here at the 2001 Detroit auto show. That one used the T5 platform.
With two rows of fold-down bench seats, the Bulli is ostensibly a six-seater. Really, it’s more of a four-seater, for young couples or people with dogs, instead of kids. The seats fold down 50/50 front and back, and the rear windows roll down on conventional (not sliding) doors. There’s very little rear cargo space.
The Bulli, if sold here, would compete with the Soul, of which Kia sold 67,000 last year, or the Fit, of which Honda sold 54k. A good, Microbus-style Routan replacement would have to compete with the Honda Odyssey (108k in ’10), Toyota Sienna (98k) and the Chrysler twins (about 215k, combined) to be a significant contributor to VW’s ’18 goal.
VW’s Bulli is smaller than the Kia Soul. It’s about 4.6 inches shorter overall, on a 2.7-inch longer wheelbase. It’s about 1.4 inches narrower than the Soul, though three-and-a-half inches taller. It’s designed for the European market, not ours, unless and until gasoline hits $5 per gallon and stays there. It’s maybe closer in size to the Ford B-Max, which isn’t going to be imported here.
Bulli’s styling is encouraging, though; a good, modern interpretation of the vans that used to follow The Grateful Dead from concert to concert.
If VW can stretch the Bulli’s design language onto the North American Passat platform, and maybe add half a dozen small windows in the roof, they might have the kind of minivan that would draw consumers who need minivans for the space, but hate them anyway.
I’m sure Browning is pushing for exactly that kind of Routan replacement. That, and a three-row, $30,000 crossover/utility also off the Passat platform. I mean, c’mon; we are Americans, after all.