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6 Reasons to Doubt the U.S. VW Microbus

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Volkswagen Microbus Concept, 2001 Detroit Auto Show

Volkswagen Microbus Concept, 2001 Detroit Auto Show

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This weekend's chatter about a new Volkswagen Microbus erupting from the company's new Tennessee plant is fun reading, but don't count on a new minivan from VW anytime soon.

A report in an Australian newspaper speculated that a new Microbus for the U.S. market only would be coming from VW's new Chattanooga plant, and our new favorite blog TechCrunch spent a few paragraphs talking about "serious" discussions for a new Microbus for America. (The latter post reminded us that VW has a research center in Palo Alto, Calif., steps away from the throbbing headquarters of TheCarConnection.com.) TechCrunch says it wants its new Microbus as an all-electric vehicle, or at least as a hybrid van--slathered with all the latest gear like its own EVDO wireless network and Web tablets built into the backseats.

But what's the reality of the situation? A new Microbus could either be a brilliant move by VW of America, or a big, expensive misstep. My guess is the latter. They've been down this path before. Remember the colossal tease that was the Microbus concept from 2001, shown above? Even after a rave reception at the Detroit auto show, worries over cost, and sales killed that planned revival.

A new minivan has to be big to compete in America--which means it won't be salable overseas--and that puts a 50,000- to 100,000-unit burden on it from day one. It would have to draw buyers away from the trio of excellent minivans already on the market--and it would have to succeed where GM and Ford have failed, admittedly a much lower hurdle than the other issues.

The fact is, there are more reasons not to do a new Microbus than there are to do one:

1) There's no way to make a Microbus-looking front end crash well. Even superstrong steel and CAD can't bring back the Sixties, not even with copious amounts of weed.

2) There's almost no way to make a new minivan that has a sales edge. Honda and Toyota have reliability; Chrysler has seating flexibility and features; the Koreans have the "other choices" slot covered. What does VW bring to the game other than a bold badge and, possibly, a diesel? An electric Microbus wouldn't make one day worth of carpooling, and a hybrid would be too expensive--and Toyota probably already has one in the works.

3) VW has no idea how many buyers would commit. The new 2009 Volkswagen Routan sounds like the right idea--joint-venture one into the market, test out the marketing in principle first, find out about possible buyers, then wait to commit--but it's not a true VW and that ultimately is what will sell a new Microbus.

4) Minivans are on the way out. Hand in hand with their 1990s brethren, the truck-based SUV, the minivan looks and sounds like a dated concept to a ton of buyers who don't have to have one. For families with kids, there will be a need--and we are in the middle of a baby boomlet--but buyers are gravitating to the class leaders, and not looking in overwhelming numbers for alternatives like the Nissan Quest.

5) The minivans that survive will have Chrysler, Honda and Toyota badges. You get credit in the U.S. market just for showing up--and not only has Chrysler been showing up since Day One, it's narcotizing kids with in-car TV and it has the seating package to beat them all. Honda has seating and durability and handling to its credit, while Toyota has those six letters in its pocket. Three category killers are enough for a mature market.

6) And finally, the most convincing reason: that VW plant in Tennessee will build a second vehicle--but it will be a five- and seven-seat crossover vehicle, not a minivan. You can still call it a Microbus even though it doesn't have a sliding side door.

If VW does commit to a new Microbus and it's a minivan, they'll have pulled off a Sarah Palin-style, game-changing moment that could recast the minivan game. Long shots don't usually pay off, though.

Maybe they just need a little lipstick.
 
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Comments (8)
  1. I feel that VW is missing a huge market here. I think that with increased fuel prices and the green movement, we are going to see a higher demand for vehicles that can move people but do it in a more efficient manner.
    The Mazda5 has seen an huge growth in sales in the last 6 months as people look for a way to move 7 people in a fuel efficient manner. The reason the markets moved from mini-vans to SUVs is that the current crop of mini-vans are boring. If VW brings a mini-van to the market that has good design and is exciting and fresh, I feel it will sell.
    A new Microbus in a TDI or hybrid version, will be a hit with trendsetters, boomers, families with small children, and the eco-conscious.
     
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  2. "Minivans are on the way out". I gotta love it. Kind of like 1984 when video games were on the way out. Or like 1962 when the Beatles couldn't land a recording contract because guitars were on the way out.
    Build a vehicle with lots of space for people and/or stuff that fits in a small parking space and doesn't guzzle fuel, and people will buy it. At least they will if it looks cool and has an image to match. That's why Volkswagen is uniquely positioned to offer a minivan that is actually hip. Just as Buick or Toyota could have never sold a new Beetle, nobody else could reinterpret VW's other 1960s icon, the Microbus.
    If you ever get a chance, look at the VW Transporter (that was its actual name for many years) ads from the 1950s. They look astonishingly like the minivan brochures of today - full of wholesome-looking families with lots of kids cavorting in and around a VW bus in a suburban driveway. They are jarring images to modern eyes that associate this vehicle with bohemian hippies.
    The marketing of modern minivans, the Honda Odyssey excepted, is awful - not much different than those '50s VW magazine spreads (which predate VW's classic advertising from a decade later). No wonder minivans aren't selling. Their own marketing materials make owning one look like drudgery, as if the life of their owners singularly revolves around carpooling kids and their paraphernalia to school and back.
    Perhaps VW should have joint-ventured with Toyota instead of Chrysler, and instead of the me-too Routan, brought over a VW-modified version of the Toyota Estima, a somewhat smaller van sold outside North America, because (a) it's already available with a hybrid powerplant, (b) it's also available in an AWD version, (c) unlike the Chrysler vans the Routan is based on, the Estima is unfamiliar to American eyes, (d) it already bears a faint resemblance to an old Microbus - it's easy to imagine a '60s bus look overlaid onto the front end, albeit more sloped than the original. Redo the bodywork some, add some small, curved windows that wrap over the roof like on the old 23-window VW buses, and you've got a mad-cool, one-of-a-kind vehicle that people would *want* to be seen in, that wouldn't be perceived as another soccer-mom minivan - and something other manufacturers would be hard pressed to compete with, a "lifestyle" vehicle not unlike, say, the Mini Cooper, only bigger and more practical. (The new Mini, incidentally, hit U.S. shores just when everyone knew that small hatchbacks were on the way out in America). However it's done, VW should build it.
     
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  3. "A new Microbus in a TDI or hybrid version, will be a hit with trendsetters, boomers, families with small children, and the eco-conscious."
    VW has no hybrids out yet, while it does have an excellent and very fuel efficient DIESEL. I agree that anything with that DIESEL, including the Microbus, will be a smash hit in today's $4 gas markets. People are just sick and tired of throwing theig good $ down the drain to fuel StupidUglyVehicles and 20 MPG Minivans. 30 and 40 MPG vehicles are needed, and Diesels better make 40-50 MPG, and hybrids better make 50 and 60 MPG, if they are to justify their much higher price and conquer a SERIOUS segment of the market. (100,000s and NOT, like the Stupid "Smart", 2,500 units a month!
     
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  4. I think in the traditional minivan style, NO. But aim it at the Scion crowd, or the other new "Box" vehicles. Reduce the size, make it a gas thrifty vehicle, and push the driver back just enough to make the crash ratings legal (no one who buys a specialty car cares if it crashes badly), and market it toward that trendy younger market that dresses and acts like they are from the 70s. And make it a break even car, so as to attract those buyers to more sophisticated VW products when they grow up (reach 35).
     
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  5. I have to disagree here. Mostly, it comes down to how good a new Microbus is. If it's as good as the 2001 Concept hinted at, it will be a game-changer and people will buy it.
    Referencing the current state of affairs tells us little. On paper, the BMW Mini sounded like a bad idea years ago. But the concept was right and it was executed well, and we all know how popular the new Mini is now.
    Chris @ squob.com
     
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  6. I think there is a huge market for this car. It will attract all of those people that love the practicality of a minivan but hate the uncool image of a traditional minivan. VW you must make this car!!! I own a 1967 microbus and have been waiting for the new microbus to come out since its 2001 concept release. The outside design is ok but give it round headlights, a big sunroof, and oblong roof windows like the 21 & 23 window samba's of the 60's. The interior has too much of a "concept" feel to it make it a bit more inviting. You will sell tons of these cars. Its all about being "practical" and "cool" at the same time.
     
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  7. I believe there is a huge market for Microbus. Why? Because there is nothing, even remotely as unique, hip, family-freiendly, with nostalgic tone available in the market. I have two small children, we nedd tons of space, lots of seating and do not like ant of the minivans on the market. We bought Jeep Compas but would get Microbus in the hartbeat if they would be offered. Do you remember
    pT Cruiser? I rest my case. Besides, to me Microbus(concept) looks more like a crossoner between SUV and minivan. So, if minivans are history (which they are not!)this one is not just a minivan. And style is second to none.
    Microbus should be offerd as diesel and hybrid op
     
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  8. I would mortgage my house for this car. I think all other VW cars are ugly and I would be embarassed to drive around in a boring VW van. But this one is beautiful.
     
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