Volkswagen AG (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY) executives confirmed this weekend that the company will put a version of the "I.D. Buzz" show car -- a futuristic all-electric take on VW's iconic Microbus -- into full mass production.
It's expected to arrive at U.S. dealers in 2022, about two years after VW's first long-range electric vehicle is launched. Here's what we know.
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What VW originally said about the I.D. Buzz show car
VW created quite a, er, buzz back in January, when it first showed off what it called the "I.D. Buzz Concept" at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. ("Buzz" was meant to be a riff on "bus," if that's not clear.)
That vehicle, which was clearly inspired by the classic and fondly remembered VW Microbus, had some features that were just as clearly only for show. (For instance, it had a steering wheel that retracted into the dash when it was in self-driving mode.)
But at the time, VW said that it was a dual-motor, all-wheel drive battery-electric vehicles with 369 horsepower, a 111 kilowatt-hour battery pack, and a predicted range of about 270 miles on the strict U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) test cycle. It was fast-charge capable, with the ability to use chargers of up to 150 kilowatts using the CCS DC Fast standard. With a 150-kW charger, it can recharge to about 80% of its battery pack's capacity in about 30 minutes, VW said.
Also of note, the concept had a very long wheelbase, nearly 130 inches. That, plus its flat floor-mounted battery, made for a very roomy interior. The thought among the auto journalists at the Detroit show was that a production version of the I.D. Buzz might make a good vehicle for ride-hailing or shuttle duty, with the ability to seat six adults in comfort.
How the show car might translate to a production version
VW's statement didn't give a lot of specifics about what the production version will be like. It's likely that VW will wait to see how things like battery costs and self-driving technology evolve before deciding definitively on details of the production I.D. Buzz's feature set.
But we did learn a couple of things. For one, VW is going to stick with the long wheelbase, giving the production I.D. Buzz a lot of interior space for its size. For another, VW promises that the I.D. Buzz will be available in both passenger and cargo versions, suggesting rather strongly that the electric van will be marketed to commercial-fleet operators as well as to retail customers.
VW also hinted that it will have self-driving ability offered as an option as that technology becomes available. (All-wheel-drive may also be optional.) And VW confirmed that it'll be offered in the U.S., Europe, and China.
How it fits into VW's electric-vehicle strategy
VW's luxury Porsche and Audi subsidiaries both have higher-end electric vehicles in development that are meant to directly challenge Tesla's (NASDAQ: TSLA) high-end Model S and Model X. The first, an electric Audi SUV is expected to arrive in the first half of 2018. An electric Porsche will debut about a year later. Both Audi and Porsche are planning additional electric models as well.
A wave of VW-brand electric vehicles will follow a bit later than the first entries from Audi and Porsche. The first long-range electric VW, a compact four-door called the "I.D." (which seems to be also the name of VW's electric-car sub-brand), will arrive in 2020. The I.D. Buzz will be the second of the series, and a more conventionally shaped electric VW SUV is expected to follow.
Why will we have to wait until 2022?
Normally, an all-new vehicle might take from two and three years to go from design to production. But the timeline here is considerably longer. That's probably because VW is scaling up to produce not just a few electric cars, but millions.
Right now, VW is developing a new modular vehicle architecture (what VW calls a "toolkit" -- learn more here) that is optimized for mass-produced electric vehicles. That new toolkit will form the basis of the I.D models. At the same time, VW is also building out the factories and supply chain that it will need to mass-produce electric vehicles in the global quantities it expects for its mass-market brand. That will apparently take a few years.
The challenge for VW is that other automakers might move more quickly, raising the electric-vehicle bar between now and then. General Motors (NYSE: GM) already has one long-range electric vehicle in production (the Chevrolet Bolt), and is believed to be working on several more. Next month, Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY) will reveal its second-generation Leaf, which is expected to have more range than the current model at a very attractive price.
There will be more over the next few years. Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) is planning a long-range electric SUV for 2020, for instance, and BMW and Mercedes-Benz (among others) both have electric vehicles on the way.
Long story short: It's likely that VW will hold off on giving specifics about the I.D. Buzz's features and drivetrain until it has a clearer picture of what the costs and competitive landscape will look like by 2022.
What's next for VW's electric-vehicle ambitions
I expect that VW will unveil the production version of that compact I.D. sedan in about a year and a half. Between now and then, I won't be surprised to see concept versions of the other VW-brand electric vehicles it's planning to follow the compact I.D. and the I.D. Buzz.
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