Volkswagen Microbus Concept, 2001 Detroit Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
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.