Back in 1998, Volkswagen captured the attention of the automotive press and just about everyone else when they launched an all-new version of the Beetle. It was called, officially, the New Beetle.
Now, more than a dozen years later, VW is launching another all-new Beetle. But it’s no longer the New Beetle. It’s just the Beetle. Wait…what? It’s not the new Beetle? Why yes it is, but with “new” in lower-case type.
This jumble of letters and words illustrates a bigger situation than just the official name of the car. The round-fendered retro ride was long overdue for a redesign, as once-strong sales had slipped in recent years. But how do you redesign a car that was based on a design that lasted for several decades?
Enter the revised Beetle. It looks somewhat like the 1998-2011 New Beetle. But it also looks a lot more like the 1949-1979 Beetle, which sold in huge numbers and became a big part of our automotive culture. (And yes, I’m aware that the car continued in production for other markets like South America and Mexico, but for the sake of argument, it was last sold in the U.S. as a 1979 convertible.)
This redesign is quite striking. The roof has that chopped look as you might have found on a car coming out of George Barris’ shop back in the day. It’s a little meaner and leaner than the New Beetle, and it’s actually a tad longer and wider. But everyone seems to know right off the bat what it is, thanks to its puffed-out fenders and generous use of curves to form the body panels.
Volkswagen doesn’t officially say it, but I’ll go ahead anyway. This is the Beetle that men can buy. It was no secret that the New Beetle — with its dainty curves and bud vase attached to the dashboard — was considered by most to be a “girl’s car.”
Beyond just the broadening of its appeal to include the hunter-gatherer sex, the 2012 Beetle carries some rather clever design cues taken right from the first-generation Bug. The dashboard, for example, has a flat, sheet-metal appearance with a small pop-open glove box that will be familiar to anyone who every rode in the front passenger seat of the original.
Turn and look over your shoulder, and you’ll see a perfectly looped passenger assist handle which rear seat occupants can use when climbing in and out. Very Volkswagen. And on the outside, base models wear stylish chrome wheel discs, the design of which harkens back to the simple hubcaps of those millions of Beetles that once roamed every corner of the planet.
Of course, Volkswagen can’t actually build the same car they used to. That rear-mounted engine, with its pingity-poppity exhaust note and leisurely power curve could never pass muster today, both from emissions and drivability standpoints. Under the retro body is the modern chassis of VW Golf.
That means that the engine is in the front, the steering is quick and effortless, and things like air conditioning, heating and defrosting are a dial twist away. As with the New Beetle, this Bug is contemporary and up to date.
Base models come with Volkswagen’s stout 2.5 liter five cylinder engine, good for 170 horsepower and shifted by a 6-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission. For the adventurous among us, a Turbo model displaces 2.0 liters and 200 horsepower, and gets the option of a really slick DSG (dual clutch sequential gearbox) automatic.
I actually requested the base car for my evaluation, because I was so enamored of those cool chrome wheel inserts. The 2.5 engine does just fine on acceleration, even with the automatic. As a day-to-day car, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the new Beetle.
Base price is $18,995 or $23,395 for the Turbo. Options can be added, but even the option-less car is equipped worlds better than the Beetles sold during their heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s. And, best of all, it’s manly enough to appeal to a demographic beyond just fashionable young women.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz.