Volkswagen Is Updating Its Iconic Bus, But You Can’t Buy One in the U.S.

If you think the classics are expensive, check out the price of a new one.

You wouldn’t believe what classic Volkswagen buses are selling for these days. Nostalgia for hippie buses is strong, partly because of fond memories (real or imagined), and partly because Volkswagen simply doesn’t sell new buses anymore.

Not in the U.S. anyway. But they do sell a modern successor to the classic bus in other countries.  Just like those old hippies, though, the venerable Volkswagen bus has been through some changes.

Today, it’s called the VW Caravelle, and even though it no longer has the air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, this modern interpretation is the direct replacement for the classic VW bus.

I couldn’t set out across America in pursuit of the Grateful Dead in this neo-bus, so instead I drove it for a week-long lap of the southern end of Ireland, where the Caravelle is sold.

However, even though U.S. fuel prices sit at comfortable levels, vehicles suitable for a long-distance road trip with six friends and a week’s worth of luggage can get pretty thirsty. Volkswagen of Ireland’s Paddy Comyn was gracious enough to provide use of his company’s flagship van for the job.

With the so-ugly-it’s-cute original bus as the frame of reference, today’s Caravelle is surprisingly handsome, comfortable, spacious and, thanks to its 180-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo diesel powerplant, also efficient.

Yes, this is the same sort of diesel implicated in Volkswagen’s pollution-cheating scandal. But it is a modern engine with appropriate control systems, so a soon-to-be-released software update will bring it into compliance, for guilt-free enjoyment.

The engine is quiet and smooth under nearly all conditions, with an occasional characteristic diesel clatter at part throttle at highway speeds. The Caravelle features a seven-speed dual-clutch manual transmission, providing automated shifting with the efficiency and power delivery of a manual transmission.

The Caravelle’s official fuel economy rating is 34 mpg, and it can surely achieve that level of efficiency when it is not burdened with six passengers and their gear. Further, driving in Ireland saw six days of winding around two-lane roads, periodically passing slow-moving cars, and a seventh day spend zooming across the country at 120 kilometers per hour on the dual-carriage motorway.

I even saw one of the Caravelle’s forebears in the scenic tourist destination village of Kinsale. Appropriately, it was a left-hand drive bus wearing California plates! And speaking of models VW doesn’t sell in the U.S., I also encountered the company’s Amarok pickup truck in a parking lot.

The Caravelle delivered 27 mpg, carrying a heavy load and pushing hard most of the time under circumstances that would probably have produced something close to 19 mpg in a U.S.-market gas V6 van.  With Irish diesel prices around $5.40 a gallon, I definitely appreciated that roughly 40 percent boost in efficiency.

I also liked the 500-mile driving range per tank, which meant only a single refill was needed during the week, plus the refill to return the Caravelle to Paddy. You won’t haul a bus-load of fans from one jam band show to the next more efficiently, or in more comfort.

The Caravelle is taller and boxier than U.S.-market vans, but I didn’t encounter a parking garage in any cities that couldn’t fit the VW until the last day in Dublin. All the country’s two-meter high garages were fine, but the 1.9-meter garage didn’t work.

The tradeoff was ample interior headroom. More importantly, that airy cabin probably minimized instances of motion sickness on the twisty Irish roads, and the large vertical windows provided ample views of the verdant scenery.

Plus, how about thoughtful details like a 12-volt power socket in the top of the dashboard, perfect for powering windshield-mounted GPS devices? Why hasn’t anyone else done this?

So why doesn’t VW fulfill American wishes and sell the Caravelle stateside? My test van’s bottom line, without taxes, was $97,000. That is a lot of Phish tickets.

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Photos by Dan Carney