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VW Beetle: Mini 911 or a Big Mistake?

In an effort to broaden its appeal Beetle is more aggressive, less cute.

by on May.30, 2012

Everything old is new again: the newest Beetle lined up against a silhouette of the original "people's car."

This is a story about the Volkswagen Beetle, not the New Beetle, which is actually the old Beetle. But not the really old Beetle, the one designed by Ferdinand Porsche for Adolf Hitler prior to World War II. That’s because the old Beetle was actually called the New Beetle while this new Beetle is simply called Beetle. Or you can just call it Bug. Whatever is easier.

VW’s goal with the new Bug is to broaden its appeal beyond its mostly female base who loved the old car because of its iconic – and more importantly cute – styling.

Yeah, We're Cute!

So the new Beetle is less bubble-like. It’s wider and lower with a flatter roof. The front end is more aggressive. There’s a bit of wedge shape rising toward the back end. Inside, it’s not surprising that the flower vase is gone.

It’s a huge gamble. While sales had slowed, there was still a core group of people who were mesmerized by the cute-as-a-bug-in-a-rug styling. There have been plenty of slick wedges, but the New Beetle was different in a world of same. It’s still different, but a little more normal.

Supermodel Heidi Klum playing Barbie next to the old New Beetle -- which has now been replaced by the new old Beetle.

The risk might be alienating those who loved to put flower stickers all over their New Beetles. Will the people who love the cute factor go for this more aggressive, angrier version?

Possibly a more critical question is whether those who would never buy the old car would consider the new one. A thirtysomething guy who loves sports cars told me “No way.”

But another guy, someone who isn’t quite as driven, said he liked it. He likened it to a mini Porsche 911, a car which shares a certain kinship with the original Beetle, sharing its rear-engine, rear-drive configuration. “That’s the closest I’d ever get to owning a Porsche,” he said.

It’s interesting to consider the cars in the driveways of each of these guys. First guy: lowered Ford Ranger, Ford Contour SVT and Ford Mustang GT. In our second guy’s driveway: Ford Fusion.

There’s little doubt that the car is still a Beetle. It still has the bulbous fenders. The sloping hood is still roundish. The roof may be flatter, but it still has the look of one of the most recognizable car designs in history.

In fact, VW points out that the new Beetle is actually closer to the original, stylistically, than its predecessor. The New Beetle was a bit of a caricature, meant to embrace cute rather than run from it.

Like the previous car, the Beetle is basically a downsized VW Golf under the skin. That means that instead of the original’s air-cooled horizontally opposed, rear-mounted four cylinder driving the rear wheels, the new car is your typical front wheeler with a transversely mounted four cylinder and transaxle.

Also typical of other VWs, the Beetle is great fun to drive. The quick, accurate steering makes zipping into holes in traffic great fun. The suspension is sporty, but never harsh. Torque steer isn’t a problem.

Too bad the base 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower four cylinder isn’t available with VW’s superb Direct-Shift Gearbox, an automated manual transmission that is simply the best of the breed. If you want the cool tranny, you have to step up to the Turbo Beetle with its 200-horsepower 2.0-liter where it is an option or wait for the diesel, which will be available for 2013.

The optional automatic transmission in the regular Beetle is a traditional torque-converter six-speed. It’s smooth and does a decent job. Just don’t drive any DSG-equipped Volkswagen before signing up for one equipped with the regular auto tranny.

The engine is powerful enough, about in line with its competition, which includes the Scion tC, and far more powerful than other mighty mites such as the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500. Fuel mileage – 22 city, 29 highway, 27 observed – is on par with the tC, less than the smaller and less powerful Mini and Fiat.

The interior is comfortable. Though the roof is flatter, it’s still bulbous compared to many other cars and has plenty of headroom, even when equipped with panoramic sunroof. The gauges are well placed, although the monstrous fuel gauge seems like a waste of space. Couldn’t we get a temperature gauge in that big circle?

Here’s an oddity though: There is only one seating surface available on non-turbo models – “leatherette.” Neither cloth nor real leather are options on lower models. The seats do a reasonable impersonation of leather, but there are a lot of buyers who will walk out the door when they see cloth is not available.

VW is also not emphasizing options to personalize the Beetle, which has become a critical part of many manufacturers’ marketing of small vehicles aimed at younger people, many of whom are bent on personalization. For example, there are just two wheel options for cars with the base 2.5 and the choice between the two is made when you decide if you want navigation or not. Similarly, there are just two choices for turbo buyers.

The controls work with typical German precision. The center console has space for travel junk, although the rear-most cupholder is not very useful because it is under the armrest, so there’s really only room for a can, not a bottle or large cup.

Rear-seat passengers – two only – have decent headroom and enough legroom, although they still might ask those in front to slide forward a bit. Ingress and egress is also good. But, there are no air vents back there.

Cargo space is good. We were surprised when we were able to fit a large auto subframe inside with the rear seats folded.

Automotive history is rife with stories of makers who decided to tweak a formula that was popular with a certain segment of buyers in hopes of casting a wider net. Mazda tried it with its mid-size 6 sedan. Thinking it might sell more if the vehicle were as big as its competitors from Toyota, Honda, Ford and Chevrolet, Mazda supersized the 6. But the 6 was no longer the more nimble, slightly smaller competitor to those cars and thus presented no reason to choose it over those better-known nameplates.

Has VW made a similar critical error? Has it made the Beetle more macho when its real fans wanted more cute? Will those who might want a more macho car – read that as men – take a look at the Beetle now that it no longer has a standard flower vase on its dash? Couldn’t VW have attracted the macho crowd by bringing back the Corrado sporty coupe to sell alongside the Beetle?

Just one humble scribe’s opinion: VW would have been better off giving the Bug’s core group exactly what they wanted, an updated version of the old car’s overly perky design, with more factory options to emphasize the cute factor.

So if we’re going to go with this mini 911 theme, can we at least get a whale tail on its rump?

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One Response to “VW Beetle: Mini 911 or a Big Mistake?”

  1. Kroisia says:

    Everything you said is fine… but here’s another point about the car that EVERYONE seems to overlook. In this day and age of EVERYONE producing 40mpg cars VW redesigns the most iconic car which is known for being easy to work on and cheap to run and puts an engine in it that only gets @30 pmg. Really??? I like the new design and had it gotten even close to the 40 mpg mark I would have purchased it. Also, VW relying on their Diesel engine to get them to 40 mpg is a joke as well esp since Mazda is coming out with a 65 mpg version this summer. VW really REALLY needs to get a clue on gas mileage!