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Volkswagen Considering Electric Microbus, Will Double Down on Beetle

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/1/2015 Christian Seabaugh
Volkswagen Considering Electric Microbus, Will Double Down on Beetle

Lifestyle products like the Beetle will play an even more important role at Volkswagen in the future. In a sit-down chat with the Volkswagen board member responsible for development, Dr. Heinz-Jakob Neusser, at the 2015 New York International Auto Show we got the inside scoop on the future of the Volkswagen Beetle, its near-term product plans, and the potential for the return of the Volkswagen Microbus, but this time with an electric powertrain.

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The New York auto show presents an interesting place for Dr. Neusser to talk about the Beetle, especially with rampant rumors alleging that the Beetle is set to get the axe. The opposite is true, according to Dr. Neusser. “It’s iconic and has a historical background. We think we can do much more with this car. The “much more” in this case starts with the four Beetle “concepts” unveiled today at the show -- two of the four will be dropped, while the other two will soon enter production. The Beetle Pink Color Edition will thankfully remain concept only, as will the Beetle Convertible Wave. The Global Rallycross-inspired Beetle R-Line and the denim-less Beetle Convertible denim, on the other hand, will both hit dealers sometime over the next year. The two new Beetle limited editions will be joined at VW dealerships nationwide by last year’s lifted Beetle Dune, which is nearing production.

Related Link: 2015 Volkswagen Beetle Buying Specs

The vast array of new Beetle concepts and variants signal a shift in VW’s way of thinking in the U.S. said Joerg Sommer, vice president, product marketing and strategy for Volkswagen of America. They are “lifestyle cars” designed specifically for the U.S. Furthermore, Dr. Neusser envisions lifestyle cars like the Beetle to play an even more important part in the struggling automaker’s lineup in both the United States and China in the coming years. Lifestyle vehicles, which Dr. Neusser points out must be sustainable and environmentally responsible, will include VW’s normal array of gas and diesel engines, plus hybrid and electric options. When the VW Beetle moves to the current-generation Golf’s MQB platform by 2018, the lineup will include a hybrid and EV version -- in fact, VW already has a Beetle Hybrid prototype rolling around with the Jetta Hybrid’s powertrain under the hood. Stay tuned for a quick drive on that.

The Beetle isn’t the only lifestyle vehicle in VW’s stable. “We have two big pillars for the brand Volkswagen,” says Dr. Neusser. “One is Beetle, and one is the [Microbus].” The often-teased but never-built modern-day Volkswagen bus may finally see the light of day, as the automaker appears to have a grasp on how to preserve the heritage of the original in a modern package. “To identify the genetic things of the microbus you have to look for a very small space between the A-pillar and the front end of the car, otherwise the hood is too long and it doesn’t look like a microbus,” said Dr. Neusser, “That makes it hard, because this technical architecture of the Microbus with its rear engine is not anymore fitted to what we are doing with our mainstream architecture where we have the greatest flexibility of different powertrains.

Related Link: See More New York Auto Show News

2011 Volkswagen Bulli Concept Front Three Quarters© Provided by MotorTrend 2011 Volkswagen Bulli Concept Front Three Quarters

“So we are actually thinking about how we can take all of the advantages of MQB and put it into a Microbus genetic code. Maybe it makes sense to think about a battery-electric car which doesn’t have the need to put all that space in front of the A-pillar because all you need is a small space for an electric motor in front, or perhaps you put it in the rear. It’s flexible, and we only have the need for the crash space. That comes closer perhaps to what the Microbus [design] needs. On the other hand we are also thinking about long-range battery-electric vehicles with more battery space inside, and [Microbus] also gives us that possibility since you sit up high and there is no need [to sit down in the car], so you have more flexibility inside.”

Dr. Neusser notes that Volkswagen is still working on whether or not an E-Microbus is something the company can build, but he promises that if it does come up with a positive solution to the packaging problems, it’ll only bring the concept to an auto show if it could be put into production. “I I don’t [want] to show things we can’t [build],” he said.

As for the third pillar of Volkswagen’s heritage, the Golf, things are trucking along smoothly. Americans have really taken to the new Golf family -- so much so that dealers practically demanded the new Golf SportWagen Alltrack, and that the initial U.S. allocation of the new Golf R sold out in just 11 hours. (Don’t worry, Dr. Neusser assures, more are coming). The success of the Golf R means the U.S. may even get an even hotter version. The 395-hp Volkswagen Golf R 400 concept is likely to get the production nod, and if it does, it’s coming to America. After all, as Herr-Dr. says, “it’ll show America how sporty the Golf can be.”

Speaking of sporty Golfs, the Scirocco still isn’t coming to the U.S., and likely never will. Scirocco production is volume-limited and the Golf is more in line with American tastes than Scirocco. Scirocco is limited in usability and practicality thanks to its two-doors and cramped rear seats, whereas the four-door Golf line can be all things to its buyers. “All these things Americans like to have,” said Dr. Neusser.

Related Link: 2015 Volkswagen Golf Buying Specs

Another vehicle that’s still not coming to America is the Amarok. Volkswagen is also keeping a watchful eye on the American pickup market, but is nowhere near close to a decision on re-entering the market. If it eventually does decide to bring the Amarok to America, it won’t do it until the next-generation truck rolls around on a new modular truck platform, which it will share with Volkswagen’s full-size commercial vans. It actually seems as if the U.S. has a better shot at getting a VW van that’ll do battle with the Ford Transit and Ram Promaster than a pickup to head off the F-150 and Ram 1500. “Looking at the overall commercial business there are many portfolio options open for Volkswagen,” said Sommer, “There is future opportunity [in commercial vans].”

As for Volkswagen’s immediate future, I have three letters for you: S. U. V. “Last year I came to our dealer congress and I brought with me all the new models and ideas we had,” said Dr. Neusser, “Every one in a container with high security, and we showed the cars and explained it, ‘You need to decide if you want it or if it should go.’ After that I talked to our dealers and asked them which they wanted first and second and so on. They made it clear: first was a mid-size SUV. Then we need a new Tiguan. After that we talked about the T-Rock, but with a little bit longer wheelbase than available in Europe.” The first two of VW’s upcoming SUVs will offer up three rows and seating for seven. The next-generation Tiguan will be available in a short-wheelbase form in Europe, but America will only get a seven-seater three-row version. That’s apparently what American VW dealers want. They also want to keep the CC. While the automaker is jettisoning the Eos, dealers demanded the CC remain in the 'States. "They made it clear to me that they want us to stay with the CC,” said Dr. Neusser. “So we have a clear strategy agreed with our dealers and I feel comfortable with this now. “

After our chat with the doctor, it appears as if Volkswagen doesn’t just have a clear strategy for its dealers, but it finally has a clear strategy for the United States as well.

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