2023 VW ID.Buzz First Drive: Why This Electric Van Is So Important For Volkswagen And For EVs Overall

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I get to drive all kinds of new cars, including cars that have been eagerly anticipated for a long time. I’m not going to lie, it’s fun. But I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a new car launch that I’ve been so personally excited or invested in, because this, the 2023 Volkswagen ID.Buzz – the electrified re-birth of the old Type 2 Microbus– is a car I’ve been advocating for Volkswagen to build since at least 2015. Volkswagen has been teasing us with the idea of a re-born Microbus since 2001, an electric one specifically since 2015, and now, incredibly, it’s here. With a build-up as long as this, with so much hype, and with a nostalgic heritage heavier than almost any other car out there, is there any way anything VW can produce that will answer everyone’s dreams and expectations? Probably not, but I do think what VW has done is pretty damn good, and represents a milestone not just for VW, but for EVs in general. Let’s get into it.

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Why The ID.Buzz Is So Important For VW

Img 2485 LargeThanks to the Dieselgate emissions-cheating fiasco about seven years ago, Volkswagen was forced to abandon diesel tech and dive into electric vehicles, a move that, in hindsight, would have made sense even if the whole emissions-cheating-debacle never happened. But just moving to EVs wasn’t enough: VW needed to reclaim a lot of goodwill, to dig back into their history and find what endeared them to the world in the first place.

The Beetle has always been VW’s spirit insect, and its values of honesty and humility served VW well, but they’d discontinued their modern tributes to the Beetle in 2019, and needed to find something new. Happily, they had another vehicle that was nearly as laden with character and nostalgia and emotion as the Bug, the famous box-on-wheels, the countercultural icon, the hippy’s choice: The Microbus.

VW understood the need for redemption-via-bus so well that they even made an entire commercial about this very concept in 2019:

As you can tell from that ad, the resurrected Bus isn’t just a new EV for VW; it’s redemption.

That’s a hell of a lot to put on any car.

Why The ID.Buzz Is So Important For EVs In General

Img 2435 LargeFor VW specifically, the ID.Buzz is heritage and history and, well let’s just come out and say it, a corporation’s attempt to materialize what they want the very soul of their organization to be. For EVs in general, it’s an extremely important vehicle because it may be the most visible and powerful example of a concept that EV makers already know – or at least suspect – is true: That mainstream EV driving dynamics and powertrain characteristics are so generally similar, it will make every other aspect of a car, especially emotional things like styling, even more important than they already are.

It’s not just me asserting this – designers like Henrik Fisker have noted this, too. Nearly all EVs have strong acceleration from a dead stop, minimal noise, similar basic packaging – they’re fundamentally less diverse technically than combustion cars, which means that the way people will decide what they want to drive will be even more affected by factors like the look, what special features are offered, what clever design and utilitarian touches are incorporated, the cultural associations made by the car, and so on.

The ID.Buzz is a great example of this because it doesn’t really have any technical uniqueness of its own; it’s built on the same MEB platform as the ID.4, just stretched a bit, but if you think about it, the VW Type 2 Transporter (you know, the old-school Bus) has always been like this.

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The Bus was the first real product VW designed as an actual, post-war, independent company, because the Beetle was designed before there was a Volkswagen, starting its life as the KdF-Wagen. But when VW introduced the Type 2 in 1950 to fill the need for a small, useful commercial vehicle, it borrowed the drivetrain from the Beetle, and then, later in the Bus’ life, VW used the drivetrain from the VW Type 4. The Bus has never had its own, unique technical/drivetrain underpinnings, really, so this latest iteration is actually very much in keeping with the Type 2’s spirit.

So, with this in mind, the ID.Buzz is an ideal case study of the everything-else-is-important concept. Mechanically, it’s no different than, say, an ID.4, but everything else is very different. Whatever the Buzz ends up being, it may also become a template for a future where common drivetrains can underpin some very unique, possibly even niche bodystyles, designs, and classifications of cars.

At the moment, even if it didn’t have its distinctive style, it would already be unique as the only real mass-market electric passenger van out there. Of course, that style is important, arguably the most single important aspect of the ID.Buzz, so let’s dig into that.

The Look

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People definitely notice the ID.Buzz. Even the famously reserved Danes that roam and bicycle the streets of Copenhagen noticed these two-toned, candy-colored oblongs, and they pointed and smiled and waved, actions I was told by other Danes were more rare than albino unicorn sightings. The Buzz is one of those cars that makes people happy to see drive by, and I think that’s important.

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A lot of why is because the Buzz is borrowing goodwill from all those decades of earlier VW buses, though I don’t really think the Buzz is actually a retro design. Yes, it absolutely takes design cues and references from earlier Type 2 VWs, but for the most part, that’s where it stops. Where I’d consider a retro design to be a fundamentally older design re-worked into a modern design vocabulary, I think the ID.Buzz is the opposite, a new design with some bits of vintage-inspired jewelry.

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The not-air-intake-vents are a good example of this. Visually they suggest the old vents, but nothing about them says they’re trying to convince anyone they’re actual vents. They’re not fake vents. They’re visual reminders that a vehicle sort of like this one once had vents here. It’s kind of an odd concept.

These retro influences are mostly taken from the T1 and T2 generations of Type 2 bus, while the proportions are more modern, and similar to the post-Vanagon, front-engined Transporters that came later:

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The most obvious retro cues are the lines used to delineate the two-tone paint, with the dramatic dip at the front end (that’s from the earliest buses), and the suggestion of the high-mounted engine air intake vents on the E-pillar (yes, E, because there’s kind of two A-pillars going on here) that are lifted from the later T2 buses, and maybe the Vanagon, but I’m pretty sure they were looking more at later T2 “bay window” buses for that.

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The proportions, as you can see, are closer to the later Transporters, mostly due to a combination of packaging and safety reasons. Later Transporters needed to shove an engine up front, and so the driver moved back, behind the front axle instead of sitting atop it. This also helped crash safety, so even if the ID.Buzz has its motor low and way in the back, just like the original, it still makes more sense to keep the driver behind the front axle.

The huge windshield and its dramatic rake seek to enclose the passenger cabin and minimize any sort of hood area, visually keeping a one-box look, but there’s plenty of actual distance from driver to front bumper. This under-dash/under-windshield area houses a lot of equipment like the HVAC system and cooling system and power inverter hardware, as well as providing a lot of crash protection.

Circling back to the pillars, I think one of the biggest changes from the concept bus to the production one was changing the pillars from being body-colored to black. I decided to see how much of a difference body-colored pillars would make on the production Buzz, just out of curiosity:

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Those white pillars do make the Buzz a bit more retro, but the blacked-out ones are definitely a bit sleeker, and certainly more in keeping with current design tastes. It’s because of details like this – and the decision to not use some sort of modern take on round headlights – that I don’t think this design is completely retro. Personally, I think I might have preferred something more obviously retro, though I can understand why VW would want to hedge their bets a bit there and make something that can move between modernity and the past with a bit more ease.

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Overall, I think the VW design team did a fantastic job on the exterior design. Riding that knife edge between retro and modern isn’t easy, and while my own silly preferences edge to the downright cartoony, I think they managed to avoid falling into that trap.

They made something that really looks like nothing else on the road, gets plenty of attention, and still doesn’t feel like a car in a Halloween costume. I’m impressed.

Oh, are you interested in the drag coefficient of the ID.Buzz? I sort of am, since it’s a big box and all. It’s 0.285 Cd, which is pretty good, especially considering that the original T2 bay window bus had a Cd of 0.42. The frontal area is still pretty huge, though, as there’s a lot of Buzz to shove through the air.

If you’re still wondering about how much heavy lifting that two-tone paint is doing, we can evaluate that by looking at a monochrome one:

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I picked one that’s even in a boring color, basic black, just to give a real challenge here, because in all black, most of the retro design elements are rendered invisible, and we’re forced to confront the overall form of the Buzz on its own. And, in looking at it this way, I think we can determine that, yes, the two tone paint is doing a lot of work, especially when it comes to communicating the heritage of the vehicle, but that paint isn’t doing everything.

Even in this form, we still have an interesting-looking vehicle, with novel, unashamedly van-like proportions and interesting detailing, especially on things like the web-like front air intake under the bumper.

I personally can’t imagine getting one of these in monochrome black, but I do think seeing it this way makes me respect the design on its own merits.

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Oh, and because I’m still me, a quick word about the lighting: While I still think I’d have preferred more simple, bolder, graphical lighting designs, what we see on the ID.Buzz fits with the rest of the ID lineup, and I understand why VW chose that path. There are sequential indicators front and rear, which is appreciated.

I do think for the US we may lose that rear amber sequential indicator, because the illuminated area appears a bit too small for US lighting standards. I guess we’ll see.

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There’s no way around the fact that the more modern, aggressive lighting design does change the tone of the iconic bus car-face. Maybe it’s more sophisticated, it’s definitely more modern, but it is also less friendly. I understand why these decisions were made, but I’m not sure I’m at a place where I like them.

I do like the thin light bar across the front, though.

Thinking Inside The Box

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The original Type 2 was born from a sketch by Dutch VW importer Ben Pon, who described the sort of commercial vehicle he wanted by simply drawing a VW chassis with a big box on top of it. That’s pretty much it. Here, look:

Benponsketch

The design brief for the VW Transporter has always just been a box on wheels, and the best thing you can say about this latest iteration is that it still is just that: a box on wheels.

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What’s nice is that thanks to the very flat MEB platform, there’s a lot of very open, very empty box to go around. Even with the passenger compartment shifted back behind the front axle, there’s still a cavernous amount of space inside the Buzz, and it’s all very usable. It feels significantly bigger inside than almost any SUV I’ve been in, for example, because, duh, it’s a van.

It’s also important to note that this is the short wheelbase one that I tested. When these come to America (it’s expected for the 2024 model year) they will be a bit longer. How much longer no one would tell me in numbers, but judging from the distance between sets of hands used to gesture with, I’d say it’s likely to be between a foot and 18 inches longer.

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These short-wheelbases ID.Buzzes have just two rows of seats, though there’s not only plenty of room for a third, there’s even armrests already in place, complete with little icons of the car you’re currently inside:

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The US-spec long wheelbase ones will almost certainly come with three rows, and I suspect that will be on option for the short wheelbase as well, though nobody was willing to confirm that.

The cargo area is really vast and open, and while the seats don’t fold away into clever nothingness, with the addition of an optional load platform the folded seats form an unbroken flat expanse that you could easily sleep two people on with no trouble.

In fact, VW showed us a little custom rig one of their PR people used to travel all over Europe, sleeping and cooking and living and perhaps even loving in the Buzz:

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That load platform also has a hinged section to get access to cargo you can store underneath:

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This is handy, but I feel like the large middle section would have benefitted from a hinged lid, too, since it’s pretty deep and hard to reach the nether regions under there. I’m not sure the pictures adequately convey the height involved, too, which is the biggest difference from most mainstream SUV interiors and even many vans, because the MEB platform, like most modern EV platforms, is extremely low and flat.

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The interior design and materials I think are quite good, though it’s hard not to think of the ID.Buzz concept and feel a bit let down. If you’ve forgotten what that one was like, here’s a reminder:

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The concept had those fantastic wood (or wood-looking) floors and the complex track system that let you slide components around and those captain’s chairs and that glass roof and that sofa-like rear seat with the side bolsters– it felt like a little expensive Air BnB on wheels.

Centerconsole

The production one is sadly saddled with the cruel hand of reality, which means more realistically affordable materials and interior mechanisms. Some attempts to keep the feel of the concept were retained, though. That center console still exists, and is removable (as I described in my post about all the Easter Eggs VW crammed in this thing) and it was hinted – though no one would go on the record – that a big glass roof would be an option by the time these get to America, which I think is very important, as it both suggests the huge old canvas sunroofs of the early Type 2s and does so much to open up and make an interior feel airy and expansive.Img 2413 Large

 

The dash has inserts of a wood-resembling plastic material that feels and looks great, and ties it a bit to the Ikea-like wonder of the concept. The switchgear and instrument cluster and center stack infotainment display and I think even steering wheel are all taken from other members of the ID family, and, again, this isn’t all that different than how the original Type 2s were, with instruments and knobs and whatevers the same or quite similar to what you’d find in, say, a Beetle.

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Oh, and yes, that center screen uses the same UX as the other ID cars, so if you like that, great, if not, my condolences. You can always use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, though, so that helps. I also think the HVAC control buttons just below the screen don’t illuminate at night, like they don’t on the ID.4, and that’s ridiculous. VW should fix that.

And while there aren’t real captain’s chairs up front that swivel 180°, those front seats do have a seat massaging option and are upholstered in bright colors and friendly materials, and on their backs they have an airline-like tray so back seat passengers can eat complicated foods or use a laptop or perhaps paint the blurry landscapes with watercolors that they see whizzing by the windows.

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The interior colors and materials are color-coded to the exterior colors, which works well, and I’m happy to say that I didn’t see any version that was the usual expected sea of charcoal-gray everything making the interior a dark cavern. The Buzz’ interior feels airy and light and is a generally pleasant place to be.

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There’s a good amount of cubbies and cupholders and little storage areas throughout, as you’d expect from a passenger-carrying minivan, and plenty of USB-C ports as well, as we now all expect, too. Though I feel like it wouldn’t have killed them to throw in a few legacy old style USB ports, since I think everyone has at least a drawer full of old USB cables as it is.

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There’s also a 230V/300W Euro-spec wall outlet in here (I’m sure that’ll be a 115V US-spec one for ours) but it’s located at the base of the front passenger seat, which strikes me as a strange choice. Wouldn’t this be more useful in the back cargo area? I guess you can always use an extension cord, but still.

All things considered, the interior design and packaging is really good, but there are two extremely significant issues that I noted. First is ventilation.

The rear windows do not open in the ID.Buzz, not even in a little pop-out vent window way. And, even worse, there’s no HVAC vents or controls aft of the front seats, which means that the whole rear 3/4 of the van is relying on airflow from the front windows and HVAC vents, and this is simply not acceptable.

Now, it was strongly hinted – again unconfirmed and off the record and with PR people darting their heads around nervously – that the US-spec model would have full HVAC vents and controls for the rear. Perhaps this will be the case on all the long-wheelbase models, but I can’t figure out why anyone would think this wouldn’t be needed or wanted on the short wheelbase one, too. I’m pretty sure Europeans sweat, too. I’ve been on a subway in Berlin, I know it happens. They get cold, too! The Buzz needs to have better rear ventilation options, period.

Not to get all crazy here, but look at this cutaway of a 1960s-era Microbus:

Oldbuscutaway

See what number 2 is there on that diagram? It says “Special roof air-circulating system.” Even six or so decades ago VW understood that you gotta have air for everyone at the rear. This shouldn’t have taken them by surprise.

Id5hvacHonestly, I can’t fathom why this wasn’t a part of the design from the get-go, for all versions. The VW ID.5 I sat in has rear seat HVAC controls and vents, as you can see above, and it’s not even close to as big inside. I’m baffled. [Ed note: Really? I am also baffled. Seems easy for automakers to get this right – MH]

The other big issue has to do with visibility out the windshield. For the most part, the visibility in the Buzz is excellent, with one notable exception: up. Because you’re so far back from the windshield, it’s difficult to see what’s right above you, and if what’s above you is, say, a traffic light, that can be a problem.

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Most of the traffic lights in Copenhagen were quite low; in the US, many are suspended quite high above the road on wires. Often they’re across the intersection, so they’d be low enough to see, but not always. I’d have to test this on American roads to be sure if it was really an issue, and I’d suspect that VW did its own extensive testing, but sitting inside the bus did make me wonder about that very specific sort of visibility.

How Is It To Drive?

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In a word, easy. It’s easy to drive, and that seems like the right path to take for this machine. If we’re honest, the original Microbus wasn’t by most definitions good to drive. It was entertaining for many people, including myself, as I kind of love the strange, loud, slow magic carpet feeling of tooling around in an old Type 2. But it was never something you’d want to take on a canyon road, and fast freeway driving was more of a chore than a pleasure.

The ID.Buzz isn’t ever chore, even if it’s not exactly engaging to drive. The acceleration is adequate – the 201 horsepower motor and its one-speed gearbox are enough to shove this 5,000-plus pound box from a stop to 62 mph in 10.2 seconds. For an EV, that seems slow, but in actual use, I think it’s fine. In the overall context of VW Microbuses, it’s the freaking USS Enterprise.

Top speed is only about 90 mph, but, again, for what this is, 90 mph is plenty. That said, the US will likely (again think about all the PR people hedging and no one wanting to say anything for sure and maybe the nervous looks) get a twin-engined AWD version that should have significantly more power, so I’d expect the long wheelbase’s power and 0-60 numbers to be much different.

Even so, I didn’t think the single-motor Buzz felt too slow. It felt just fine.

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The turning circle is better than I expected as well (36.4 feet), and parking and other general driving maneuvers were comfortable and generally effortless.

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Like most modern cars, the ID.Buzz is crammed full of sensors and cameras, so you get that nice 360° overhead view and a clear backup camera view and with the minimal overhangs and nimble control, I don’t see why anyone would have any issues parallel parking this thing.

Oh, and if you do have a weird parking situation, the Buzz offers a system, as seen on some other recent cars, where it can store a set of driving and parking maneuvers that can be “played back” on demand, so if you have to do some elaborate dance to park your car without hitting trash cans or chicken coops, you can “teach” the Buzz once and it’ll do it just as you showed it, with input from its various sensors in case things moved, every time.

It also has Level 2-ish semi-automated driving in the form of dynamic cruise control and lane keeping and automatic braking and all, that, so if you want the car to do a good chunk of the driving for you, that’s possible.

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I drove the Buzz for the better part of a day all over Copenhagen and with a quick jaunt into Sweden. The seating position is great, the visibility is good, the driving controls are where you expect them, and the overall driving sensation is – and I mean this in a positive way, strangely – forgettable. Maybe the only surprising thing is that for such a tall vehicle, it’s not top-heavy, because all the weight is as low as possible, so in that context, maybe there’s a bit of a surprise.

But this is more a car about traveling than driving, if that makes sense. It’s a vehicle about the journey you’re making, the people you’re making it with, and the places you see through all those windows. It’s not about the physical act of how the car reacts to you and the road, as long as it does what it’s supposed to do, without making a big fuss.

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If you’re looking at one of these to autocross, you’re either making a grave mistake or making a hell of a point. And that’s fine, because I think the way VW handled the driving experience was right, and makes sense for the whole point of this thing.

How Long Can You Drive It And Other Battery And Charging Stuff

It’s kind of funny that EV reviews place so much emphasis on range and charging, because combustion car reviews would never devote a whole section to gas tank size or the re-fueling experience. That’s because those issues are very solved for combustion cars, and things are still not yet settled for EVs, so this is important. So, with that in mind, the ID.Buzz is supposed to go about 262 miles on a full charge, according to the combined WLTP cycle used in Europe. American EPA estimates will likely be different, but I’d think 250 or so miles seems about right.

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The Buzz I drove was showing a full battery range of 457 kilometers/283 miles, and after a full day of driving around all over the city, we had used a bit under half the battery capacity. You can see below, near the end of our driving day, where the battery is reading 56% and 218 km/135 miles of remaining range. That’s not bad.

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The ID.Buzz can charge using up to a 170 kW charger, on a DC fast charger. This isn’t the fastest available charging for an EV, but VW says it’ll take the 77 kWh battery from five percent to 80% in just 30 minutes, which isn’t bad. There’s also AC charging for home or slower chargers at 11 kW levels.

I Sure Wish I Knew How Much It’ll Cost In America

Img 2472 LargeThe base price for the short-wheelbase Euro-spec model starts at about $54,000, though I was told that does include taxes and other sorts of monies that help keep those Europeans in excellent free healthcare systems and all that. When this comes to America, it’ll be the bigger one with very likely more equipment and most likely a second motor as well, at least optionally, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up about this starting below, say, $60,000 or so.

That’s not cheap. But, I suspect that for the people considering one of these, at least initially, this will be exactly the vehicle they want, for a wide variety of complicated and likely irrational reasons, which is fine, because that’s how cars work.

Will these be competitive for people who aren’t smitten by the nostalgic allure of an old Microbus? I think it’s possible, for a couple reasons: First, there simply aren’t any other roomy EV vans around, period. So if you want a big, roomy sliding-door van with room for people and stuff and you could camp in and you want it all-electric, so far this is the only show in town.

Also, it genuinely is charming, even to people who don’t have experience with old VW buses. It’s bright and friendly and fun and doesn’t look or feel like 99% of the cars on the road, and there’s always an appeal to that.

Okay, Final Thoughts

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Re-imagining an icon is never easy, but I think VW pulled it off pretty well, at least when I force myself to be realistic and accept that we can’t all drive exotic concept cars. They captured enough of the fun spirit of the original without making a caricature, and the very nature of a big open box on wheels means this thing can’t help but be useful and flexible.

They need to sort out the ventilation issues, and I’d love it if eventually some more price-accessible version could be possible, because this feels like it would be great for exactly what the original was great for: Everything.

Well, everything that didn’t require a lot of speed, but that’s a big set of things. Families, road trips, a space of your own to do whatever in, from camping to drugs to sex to filling full of big dogs to hauling cumbersome objects to mobile workspaces to whatever. It’s an open volume of space that’s mobile, fundamentally, and that’s why the original Bus worked so well, and it’s still why this one can, too.

Because it’s always just a box on wheels, dressed up in the bright hues of nostalgia or not, and there is always a place for such simple, good ideas.

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98 Responses

  1. The microbus was a favorite and immortalized by the hippies in the U.S. smoking their marijuana and free love..
    I guess this is a new day, and I’m sure it would look right at home on college campuses. It’s right on time to be a favourite amongst protesters, Antifa where they can smoke their marijuana, make caustic milkshakes, and tote their riot gear and baseball bats around from city to city camping out at Starbucks. ????

  2. The microbus was a favorite and immortalized by the hippies in the U.S. smoking their marijuana and free love..
    I guess this is a new day, and I’m sure it would look right at home on college campuses. It’s right on time to be a favourite amongst protesters, Antifa where they can smoke their marijuana, make caustic milkshakes, and tote their riot gear and baseball bats around from city to city camping out at Starbucks. ????

  3. I’m going to agree with the consensus on some of the…odd…interior choices and the headlight shape being a bit disappointing. Also, the VW badge in the front needs to be 100% bigger to match the proportions on the original microbus.

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