December 6, 2022

LDMfour

Let's Talk Car

Can the Volkswagen ID. Buzz revive the MPV market?

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One of the most anticipated new arrivals in 2022 is the Volkswagen ID. Buzz – the electric people carrier with retro styling that harks directly back to the 1960s VW Microbus so beloved of the hippy generation.

But could the arrival of this vehicle, quite unlike anything else recently launched in the rapidly expanding EV market, actually prove a last-minute saviour for a sector that has almost disappeared – the ‘multi-purpose vehicle’ (MPV)? Or is the way the Buzz is being presented to potential buyers missing a trick?

Not so many years ago, MPVs – or people carriers as they were often called – were the thing to have. Many buyers appeared to like the concept of the large, slab-like vehicles with astonishing practicality compared to a regular hatchback or estate car.

Some MPVs could accommodate seven or even eight occupants, or with less people capacity could offer a whole lot more flexibility – individual armchairs that swung around with a table in the centre should one wish to turn the vehicle into a mobile office. Every major manufacturer offered at least one MPV in its line-up, some even producing mini ranges of people carriers in differing sizes.

Then, however, the bottom fell out of the market as the MPV became yet another victim of the new generation of SUV and crossover vehicles that have also decimated the large family car segment. Suddenly, buyers preferred a Ford Kuga to a C-Max or a Renault Kadjar to a Scenic.

When some SUVs started appearing with seven-seat capacity, the MPV’s fate was sealed. Back in 2009, 1.7 million MPVs were sold across Europe, compared to a million SUVs. By 2019, that picture had changed dramatically. SUV sales were running at 4.9 million and still mushrooming, while MPVs down to just a million and still falling – in Covid-affected 2020 that figure dropped under 700,000.

Today, just about the only users keeping the people-carrier market alive are high-end private-hire firms needing to transport clients in expensive luxury. The UK’s biggest, Addison Lee, spent £41 million buying 1,200 new Volkswagen Sharan models in January 2019, slotting into their fleet alongside their existing Ford Galaxy people carriers. If they want to replace any today, the Sharan is no longer available, and persistent rumours suggest the current Ford Galaxy is the last, despite a recent major update with a hybrid drivetrain.

There are some people carriers still about, smaller five-seat models such as the Ford S-Max, but their days are definitely numbered too – recent examples to pass into history include the Citroën Grand C4 SpaceTourer, which had its own legion of fans.

The irony is that the industry is shifting irrevocably towards electric cars, and the MPV format is almost a perfect match for an electric drivetrain. People carriers typically have a large footprint, and that means lots of space under their floor for big battery packs – essential for the driving range buyers would expect from vehicles sold on their practicality and flexibility.

Current people carrier models in our Expert Rating Index

Culture change

Talking about flexibility, going electric really gives the car designer the chance to completely forget the cars they’ve done before. Because electrics are compact and can be packaged anywhere, an EV doesn’t have to look like a petrol car and offers the opportunity to reinvent the vehicle’s entire interior layout.

Big airy interiors with flat floors, seats that move about to allow said interior to become working space, living space, travel space and even sleeping space, with all the connectivity and such one needs at one’s fingertips. It’s all so much more doable in an EV because there ane none of the usual engine/gearbox/driveshaft/fuel tank/exhaust components to get in the way.

Trouble is, most EV designers still haven’t got traditional cars out of their system, which is why most EVs still look like cars, with engine bays they don’t need, even uncomfortable styling because the designers can’t really decide how to replace the front grilles that are effectively redundant with electric drivetrains.

With the ID. Buzz, Volkswagen is seizing on the practical advantages of an EV. An enormous wheelbase just shy of three metres, with the wheels right on the corners of the vehicle, means loads of space inside. The driver sits further forward than in any other people carrier on the market, and inspiration for filling what’s behind them comes from the home, rather than from other cars.

Describing what he called ‘the lounge’, interior designer Tomasz Bachorski says that the goal was to bring customers’ homes into the vehicle interior, “in every aspect, from the materials to the digital equipment you are used to.”

So yes, the Volkswagen ID. Buzz is very much a people carrier for the 21st century and is confidently predicted to be hugely popular. Volkswagen only expects to produce around 15,000 examples of the passenger ID. Buzz and its cargo-carrying sister for Europe in 2022, but hopes to ramp that up closer to 60,000 in 2023. Eventually, that number will double again if all goes to plan.

Yet this popularity is not being generated on the newcomer’s practical qualities. The major sales push on the ID. Buzz is all about taking up the torch for the iconic 1950s Microbus, with Volkswagen eagerly pointing out the direct styling references and even announcing early on that a Camper version – surely the most coveted of all the Microbus variants – will be coming among a whole lot of variations on the theme in the next couple of years.

It could be that buyers discover the practical aspects of the Buzz almost by accident, and that practicality reputation grows by word of mouth. But the cost of the vehicle isn’t going to help – UK prices for the passenger version start north of £57,000, and that’s for the base model…

With pricing such as that, you are not going to look at a Buzz among a number of considerations for a practical people-carrier – you are only going to pay that sort of money if you really, really want the Volkswagen, and that will likely be because you want it for what it’s being presented as, a fashion-heavy lifestyle choice.

Will other car brands catch the buzz?

The Volkswagen ID. Buzz is a thoroughly modern and attractive version of the traditional people carrier, a type of vehicle we all thought was finished. The problem is few of the traditional people-carrier buyers are going to be able to afford to find that out for themselves.

It’s very early days to talk about its impact, since the ID. Buzz hasn’t even hit the streets yet. But Volkswagen has been teasing and previewing a new Microbus for more than 20 years now – with the first concept being shown at the 2001 Detroit motor show. In 2011 came the first electric concept, called the Bulli, followed by the Budd-e in 2016. The concept version of the ID Buzz was shown in 2017, a full five years before the production version finally makes it onto public roads.

Each concept was revealed to hype and excitement about the idea of an all-new Microbus, yet other car manufacturers have yet to produce their own interpretations of the idea. Despite the enormous buzz (pardon the pun) that accompanies the retro-tastic Volkswagen, there’s no evidence yet that it will lead to a revival of an MPV sector that seems perfect for 21st century lifestyles.

There was one brief suggestion, that one of the most popular of all compact MPVs, the Renault Scenic, was coming back when in May Renault unveiled a new concept called the ‘Scenic Vision’. But no, that famed model name has been hung onto yet another SUV…

Meanwhile, the ID. Buzz really is an example of making the best use of the practicality made possible by electric drivetrains, and those buyers lucky enough to have one in their households are likely to love it. It’s just a shame that no other car manufacturers seem tempted to jump on the bandwagon.

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