PEBBLE BEACH, California -- Bringing back the iconic 1960s-era Microbus might seem like a warm and fuzzy nostalgia play, but Volkswagen has something more functional and potentially lucrative up its sleeve than happy memories.
VW plans to use the modernized vehicle to put its U.S. dealers into the commercial vehicle business -- a segment for which the company has growing global aspirations.
The I.D. Buzz, confirmed for production here on Aug. 19, will serve twin purposes, said Volkswagen brand CEO Herbert Diess. It will give VW dealers a high-tech electric van with decades of positive goodwill behind it. And it will come with the design flexibility to let dealers upfit it for small-business owners and contractors who might want something flashier than the run-of-the-mill commercial van currently available.
The I.D. Buzz will arrive in 2022 with Level 3 autonomous drive technology, said Eckhard Scholz, CEO of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.
"There is quite an opportunity for us in commercial in the United States," Scholz told Automotive News. "And this car has the flexibility to serve as both a passenger car and a commercial van."
Volkswagen doesn't participate in the U.S. commercial van market, which is a key profit source for Detroit's automakers and a target for other import brands -- notably Nissan.
But unlike Nissan, which sells a full-size pickup and cargo vans, Volkswagen has no U.S. products to throw into the fight. Fifty years ago, its underpowered and lightweight bus did not particularly lend itself to rugged American business use. And its design evolution into a squarish and sturdier-looking Vanagon and Eurovan in the 1980s and '90s fell flat before disappearing from the portfolio.
VW's early '60s attempt to introduce a U.S. truck so threatened the domestic auto industry that the United States adopted its famous chicken tax in 1963 -- a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks.
That tariff still complicates product plans for Volkswagen and all other truck importers.
But VW is determined to tackle the commercial segment now, Scholz said.
Scholz said it has not been determined where the I.D. Buzz will be manufactured. The automaker's commercial arm will produce the model, as it has produced all previous generations since the 1950s. The commercial unit operates a large manufacturing plant in Hannover, Germany.