Inside Clean Energy: Here’s a Cool New EV, but You Can’t Have It

Volkswagen has given the world a first look at the new ID. Buzz, an all-electric van that takes design cues from the classic Volkswagen microbus.

Buyers in Europe can get the new model later this year. But customers in the United States will need to wait until 2024 for a larger version tailored to the U.S. market.

EV buyers in the United States are now used to this, as automakers have introduced some of their most anticipated new models in international markets. Some models take years to arrive in the United States or don’t arrive at all.

I reached out to Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader, to try to understand why American buyers need to wait for certain EVs, and what that says about the U.S. car market.

“It could be as simple as wanting to debut [a new model] on your home turf first,” Moody said, about Volkswagen’s plans. The van will initially be assembled in Hannover, Germany.

Among the other possible reasons, U.S. vehicle safety laws are some of the most stringent in the world, Moody said.

Also, EVs are a smaller share of the passenger car market in North America, with 4 percent of new vehicle sales in 2021, than they are in Europe, at 17 percent, and China, at 13 percent, according to EV-Volumes.com (figures include all-electric and hybrid vehicles). The recent surge in gasoline prices should help to boost interest in EVs in all of those places.

Policies play a role. The European Union and China have more policy support for electric vehicles than the United States does, which affects companies’ strategies in each place. The Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation includes an extension and expansion of incentives for buying EVs, but the proposal has been unable to get the votes it needs to pass the Senate.

Most of the models unavailable in the United States are subcompact cars from brands—mainly European and Chinese—that don’t have dealerships in this country. For example, the Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV, is a budget model that is the top-selling EV in China, and ranks just behind the Tesla Model 3 among the top-selling EVs in the world. The manufacturer, SGMW, is a joint venture whose partners include General Motors.

But a few of these missing models are from brands that do operate here and are the subject of longing by U.S. reviewers and enthusiasts.

One is the Honda e, which looks like a gym teacher’s whistle on wheels. Honda, which is based in Japan, has a huge dealer network in the United States, but has chosen to limit this model to Japan and Europe.

“Though adorable and innovative, the e is destined to remain a foreign-market novelty,” said a 2020 review in Car and Driver. And yet, good reviews have not led to strong sales, as the model has struggled in a competitive European market.

The Honda e on display at the Brussels Motor Show. Credit: Didier Messens/Getty Images
The Honda e on display at the Brussels Motor Show. Credit: Didier Messens/Getty Images

Another example is the Volkswagen ID.3 hatchback, which launched in 2019 in Europe. It was the debut for the company’s ID line of electric vehicles, which stands for “intelligent design.” U.S. buyers needed to wait until 2020 for the larger ID.4, a crossover SUV. The ID.3 still isn’t available in the United States, even though it’s one of the top 10 best-selling EVs in the world.

It’s not just European or Asian automakers that are prioritizing the European market for electric vehicles. Ford said this week that it is developing seven new EVs for the European market by 2024, including three passenger vehicles and four commercial vehicles.

Much of the production of Ford’s new EVs will be at a plant in Cologne, Germany. And, Ford is working with Volkswagen on aspects of developing EVs for the European market. 

“I am delighted to see the pace of change in Europe—challenging our entire industry to build better, cleaner and more digital vehicles,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Ford is all-in and moving fast to meet the demand in Europe and around the globe.”

Asked if any of the models would be available in the United States, a Ford spokesman said this week’s announcement was about the European market and he had no comment about other markets.

Volkswagen unveiled the ID. Buzz last week with a slickly produced event in Hamburg, Germany, that included company executives and an appearance from actor Ewan McGregor.

The new model “unites the past with the future, full of emotions, history and the latest technology,” said Carsten Intra, chairman of the board for Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.

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He is touching on the history of the Volkswagen Transporter, which was often called the Volkswagen Bus, a model that was sold starting in about 1950, and was associated with Hippies and wild custom paint jobs in the 1960s. The new design uses some elements of that classic, with a two-tone color scheme on the exterior and a spacious and boxy interior.

Initially, Volkswagen will release two versions of the model, one for passenger use and one for commercial use, each with two rows of seating. They will go on sale in parts of Europe in the second quarter of this year. Some important details, like pricing and battery range, will be disclosed closer to the release.

The model will have the ability to export electricity from its battery for use in the customer’s home or business.

Volkswagen will offer other versions of the van over the next few years, including a larger one that will be sold in the United States in 2024, said Mark Gillies, a Volkwagen spokesman.

“Basically, we opted for the long-wheelbase version with three rows of seats because that is what buyers in this market expect, and that version goes into production after the European normal wheelbase model,” he said.

This reasoning is similar to what Volkswagen said about waiting to sell the ID.4 in the United States.

Indeed, automakers look to the United States as the place to sell their electric trucks and SUVs, as can be seen with Mercedes-Benz expanding its operations in Alabama to make electric SUVs.

Moody of Autotrader is impressed with Volkswagen’s new bus.

“It looks like they did a good job, a very good job, of creating something that has that authentic feel of old Volkswagen,” he said.

That feel of the Volkswagen Bus means something on an emotional level for many buyers, which gives the new model the potential to catch on with the public, providing a nostalgia factor to go along with the appeal of an electric drivetrain.

Now, you just need to wait for two years to be able to take a test drive.

Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

The EV Industry May Not Be Ready to Seize the Moment of High Gas Prices: The recent spike in gasoline prices is making consumers think more seriously about buying an electric vehicle, but automakers are facing challenges in obtaining key materials to ramp up production of EVs. Also, the high sticker prices for most EVs mean that they are out of reach for some of the consumers most likely to be feeling the pinch of high gas prices, as Aarian Marshall and Matt Simon report for Wired.

“We don’t have enough batteries and auto manufacturing capacity to meet the demand for electric vehicles today, which is missing a prime opportunity,” said Mark Paul, an environmental economist at the New College of Florida.

Frustrated With Utilities, Some Californians Are Leaving the Grid: A growing number of Californians in rural areas and in the San Francisco suburbs are leaving the electricity grid. They are responding to concerns about wildfires, blackouts and high electricity rates by generating and storing their own electricity, as Ivan Penn reports for The New York Times. “It’s not just the doomsayers or the eco-hippies,” said Diane Vukovic of Primal Survivor, an organization that helps consumers with disaster preparedness. “People want to have that self-reliance. It’s become so much cheaper and easier that at this point, there’s very little reason not to do it if you have the means to make the investment now.”

Solar Growth Slowing in the Face of Price Increases: The U.S. solar industry deployed a record 23.6 gigawatts of generating capacity in 2021, including utility-scale and customer-owned projects, according to a new report from Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Those numbers would have been higher except that some projects were delayed, especially in the fourth quarter, as Emma Penrod reports for Utility Dive. One reason for the delays is that costs have increased up to 18 percent.

Puerto Rico Is Struggling to Meet Its Clean Energy Goals, Despite Biden’s Support: Puerto Rico’s public utility said this month that it doesn’t believe it can meet a target of generating 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. The Biden administration has pledged to align $12 billion in federal aid with the goals of the territory’s 2019 clean energy law, which calls for a shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, as my colleague Kristoffer Tigue reports for ICN. The recent comments by a utility executive are leading environmental advocates to again question whether the gas industry is exerting influence to slow down the transition away from fossil fuels.

ICN reporter Julie Margolin contributed to this story.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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