On the road in the new Volkswagen ID. Buzz
There’s a real *cough* buzz around VW’s EV comeback kid - time for an exclusive road-trip to meet the family
"Coo, isn't it lovely? It’s like... modern and old-fashioned at the same time. But why’s it got them black stripes on the side?” Sometimes an audience is engaged and wants the technical details and sometimes, well, sometimes their dog cocks its leg on a lamp post and an innocent trickle starts running under the tyre of the car you’re discussing.
A sharp tug on a lead. “Oi, you! I’m so sorry about that.” But the moment has passed, the terrier departs with a certain jaunt in its step, the intrigued onlooker tally falls by one and the opportunity to discuss the air-cooled rear-engined origins of VW vans and the symmetry in the new ID. Buzz vanishes. We’re outside DeskHop in Newquay. It’s one of those hot-desking pop-ups that chimes with the VW’s forward looking philosophy. Sounds like I planned it, but I actually pulled over for the slumped glitz of the amusement arcade next door. Nevertheless, maybe not where you’d expect to find the first ID. Buzz on the road anywhere in the world. Hello, Cornwall.
Photography: Mark Fagelson
Now, you’ve probably already seen studio shots of the ID. Buzz, but nothing quite prepares you for the visual impact it has on the road. People haven’t had a chance to get used to it yet and can’t believe this is it, ready for production. Come here in a supercar and they’d approach with trepidation, but this is friendlier so they flock to it like seagulls around an abandoned bag of chips. Hide, says the numberplate; not a chance, screams the Buzz, belting everyone between the eyes with its clean, confident lines, blacked out pillars and a windscreen like a set of wrap-around shades. Could have been even more wrap-aroundy, some reckon, more in keeping with the ‘Bay’ as the post-split screen T2 is affectionately known. Others idly wonder if some aftermarket firm will do a ‘Splittie’ sticker to divide the screen or ‘Samba’ it like the 23-window version.
Tomorrow we’re showing it to VW van enthusiasts. Today’s knowledgeable comments come from people who wander over for a chat in a town that probably has a stronger connection to VW vans than any this side of Woodstock or San Francisco. Volkswagen rode the crest of the California surf scene and hippy counterculture wave back in the Sixties, and although the vans that filled the gap between the original T2 and today have had neither the iconic looks nor zeitgeist appeal, the scene never died.
If anything, it grew. Just in a more organic, low-key way. Today VW sells upwards of 50,000 Transporter vans across Europe each year. Go to any outdoor activity centre and you’ll find row upon row of T5s and T6s. People who pretend to have an active lifestyle drive an SUV, those who actually do drive a VW van.
They’re everywhere, maybe doubling as the work van during the week, before heading to coast or mountain at the weekends. The ID. Buzz image may be T2, but the audience for it is T5 and T6 (quick bit of history: the T-for-Type numbers change with the generation. Type 2 was the first as Type 1 was the Beetle). The trouble is that although the Buzz looks like a van and acts like a van and riffs heavily on the van theme, it is actually a car. Only five seats inside, the rears split 60:40, the fronts not even capable of spinning round. Just a massive, massive boot – 1,121 litres under the parcel shelf (a Volvo XC90 offers 775 litres) and a seats folded maximum that’s double any SUV you care to mention. Yet at 4.7 metres long it’s shorter than almost all of them. Now tell me again your SUV is well packaged.
But yes, a car. And there are benefits to that. The way it drives for a start. Underneath the Buzz shares underpinnings with the ID.3 hatch and ID.4 crossover. It’s a modular platform, so here it’s grown, the 2,988mm wheelbase just 12mm shorter than a T6 van’s. You hear people say that skateboard battery and motor packaging is good for electric sports cars because it keeps the centre of gravity low. But sports cars had low centres of gravity already. Imagine the gains in a van. Not just carrying mass low, but how it’s distributed fore and aft. I own a T6 Cali Beach, not only does it chomp through front tyres three times as fast as rears, but the body control is wayward, it heaves and lollops along, the whole structure twisting and creaking.
I love it, but I drove it down here yesterday, and now I don’t really want to go back to it. The Buzz shell is far more rigid, stability is markedly better, it stays level around corners and responds neatly to steering inputs. You can make good car-like progress in it and above all it’s perfectly smooth and admirably silent. But you know that already. You also know the drawbacks. This is the 77kWh battery pack that delivers 310 miles of claimed range in an ID.4 – what’s it going to be like in a van with more weight, less aero?
Here’s an old fact. Back during development in 1949, Volkswagen put a T2 in a wind tunnel and discovered it had better aerodynamics than the Beetle (0.44Cd vs 0.48). It’s not far off this time round either. The ID.4’s 0.28Cd figure has risen by just 0.01Cd, and the Buzz is only around 150kg heavier (2,225kg). No official figures yet, but I reckon VW will claim around the 280-mile mark for range. So 200 on average. Less when it’s fully loaded, much less when it’s cold or you’re carrying kit on the roof. Maybe it’s just as well you can’t tow much due to a 1,000kg limit. Plan your holiday recharges. For context my van did 37mpg on the way down here, has a range of 500 miles and can tow 2,500kg. Grr.
The Buzz is quieter, suffers way fewer NVH issues and is light and easy to pilot. Resist the 21in wheels, the ride is slightly lumpen. Range and comfort will both improve if you go smaller. It flits along the B3276 past Mawgan Porth, whisking up to speed, regen to slow, no gears, no fuss, no sense it’s puffing and panting on the steep inclines. It doesn’t feel small, but it’s wieldy because the turning circle is amazingly tight – handy in the tiny fishing villages around here – while 200bhp and 229lb ft of instant torque are happily sufficient.
In short, the Buzz doesn’t need much management (provided you’ve disabled the intrusive driver assist systems). It does as you ask calmly and considerately, and leaves you with bandwidth to spare. Focus on the views, maybe. Or more likely child control and the infotainment. The latter, it must be said, is better here. New v3.1 software that’s more responsive and includes games for when you’re charging. Still a reach away though and the touch sensitive sliders remain woeful.
I adore being in it. The driving environment is very special indeed. The switchgear and screens are shared with lesser IDs, but the ambience is exclusive to the Buzz. It’s like sitting in an armchair on a penalty spot and looking into a goal: big upright screen a distance away, flanked by large quarterlights. You’re sitting high, armrests flipped down, soaking it all in, viewing the outside from this light, bright and futuristic pedestal.
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And the view out gets no better than sunset at Fistral Beach. The home of British surfing and we’ve got a rosy red belter on our hands. It’s March, there are dozens of wetsuited figures bobbing in the waves and inevitably masses of VW vans in the car park around us. Air-cooled chatter signals the arrival of two original split screens I invited down to join the Buzz to get a sense of progress, scale and design faithfulness. They’re glorious to behold, dainty and pretty, perfect in their detailing, pure in their simplicity. But the Buzz holds its own and has a crumple zone that consists of more than a tin nose and your knees.
Gearchanging is a discussion point – the tricky downshift from third to second that if you go searching for, you won’t find. A deft flick is the trick. Things like this are what give old cars character – they require us to be utterly involved, to have knowledge and develop sensitivity. In 60 years’ time will cars have moved on so far that an ID. Buzz will be similarly challenging to its driver? I can’t see it.
That night and dawn the next day I saunter around in the Buzz. I can’t leave it alone. I’m drawn to it because it’s different, because it’s a new anti-SUV template, fun to be in and around. It’s not demanding to drive, but it shouldn’t be – the ease of electric is the appeal.
But equally I’m not blind to its drawbacks. I look for elements to love and engage with, but can’t escape the sense that Volkswagen should have been more thoughtful and creative with everything behind the front seats. It’s a two-tier cabin. For those up front this is unique and special while those behind, apart from sliding doors and intensely generous headroom, have less to lift their spirits.
Is this just me? Time to put the Buzz in front of an audience. I banged the jungle drums and here they are, owners of VW vans from every era. Splits, Bays, T25s with Subaru engine conversions, lifted T4 Syncros, dropped T5s, campers, conversions, the lot. East Pentire Headland is staging its own BugJam, and it is marvellous. They’ve come not because I asked nicely, but because they’re intrigued.
Four run companies that modify Transporter vans, turning them into campers. All have concerns. “We try to mount the gas, services and water under the van,” Kenny Green from Ecowagon tells me, “but that’s going to be a real challenge with the battery.” There’s nervousness about drilling into the battery pack, venting the gas pipes: “Maybe we’ll have to look at a glue-down solution instead of screwing,” Matt Burgon from Cambee reckons. “And how are we going to take power from it?” All reckon customer demand will be there ahead of VW’s own delivery.
More versions of the Buzz will come, with longer wheelbases, bigger batteries and motors, different seating layouts and VW’s own camper, the California. But not for another three years. In the meantime, the emptier interior of the Buzz Cargo – the van version – looks like a blank canvas. But not a massively big one. That 3,900-litre interior volume is huge by car standards, but it’s 2,000 litres smaller than a T6. The thick body frame that is so good at suppressing noise and flex constricts the cabin.
Everyone loves that VW has refound its mojo, finds the Buzz breezy, fresh and invigorating. They clamber all over it, under it and through it, sit three abreast and close the doors, and generally pick up on the same things: hope there will be storage solutions to stop things flying around the boot, rue the limited versatility, but love the driving environment and the fact VW will offer a boot shelf that lines up with the folded seats so you can throw a mattress in there. Clive, an industrial designer, makes an interesting point: “I’m not keen on the big mouth, I would have liked it to have a V-shape nose like my Split.” He’s got a point, that lower grille is a bit clunky.
But the full V would have been too overtly retro and VW needs this van to be seen in another light – as a new way of transporting a family. Actually not a new way, an old way with a new twist. For what is the Buzz if not an MPV? Paul Rockett nails it: “We run an Alhambra and it’s very similar to that, but bigger and swankier.”
Most of the vans that turn up have names. I’m introduced to Eileen, Velma, Sandy and Coral, shown factory certificates of authenticity, invited in for tea with Grant, who’s done the marquetry interior himself. With others I chat 13-minute engine swaps, lowering springs, roof tents versus pop-ups. What it shows me is the sheer scope of possibility that a box on wheels offers and the array of specialists out there working on them. It’s fascinating.
Yes, at the moment it’s a family car, but that’s not what it’s limited to – Volkswagen needs these people onboard with their ideas and their customer bases to help set the tone for the ID. Buzz and ensure it doesn’t come across as a retro pastiche. It’s cool already, but they can sprinkle the magic dust and turn it into a cult object for the future.
But isn’t it great that VW has finally had the courage to reinvent the original? This might not yet be the van that most van owners want it to be, but right now, if you’re looking at any other electric crossover, be it a Volkswagen, Ford, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz or Kia, doesn’t this look like a bigger, brighter, more interesting alternative? It’s beguilingly simple and yet entirely uplifting. And that’s why it’s our electric car of the year.