Cars are not simply about getting from Point A to Point B. Cars can define a time in history, influence our culture, even change our perception of what we want, or expect from a car. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Volkswagen Beetle stands in an elite group of one of the most significant automobiles of the 20th century. Yet, the Beetle rests a bit uncomfortably from the very country who invented it. And this is where automotive culture kicks in. The history of the Beetle is well known. Adolf Hitler asked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to design a simple, affordable car, with the intent of offering German families a new car in their driveway. Here in the US, the Beetle is often associated with the counter-culture in the Vietnam era, was blessed with a brilliant advertising campaign, and, simply put, was just a great little car that was practical, efficient, and dripping with personality.
The last old school Beetle sold in the USA was in 1979, but remained in production for years to come in foreign markets. The Volkswagen Golf is now VW’s best seller, offering a sporty ride and superior build quality. So, then, why the Beetle? In all seriousness, this is actually a sensitive subject. Contemporary Germans see the Beetle as a symbol of a Nazi regime, during a very dark chapter in the history of their country. In America, however, we had no such misgivings for the Beetle. Far from it. And Volkswagen knew it. In 1994 in Detroit, VW unveiled Concept 1, a re-imagined Beetle, to gauge public reaction. The car was a sensation. And Volkswagen knew they had to build it.
For the model year 1998, Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle. And buyers, in North America at least, went nuts for it. Waiting lists. Dealer inflated pricing proved the demand was strong. And demand came from buyers young and old. Baby Boomers wanting to recapture memories of their youth, as well as younger buyers attracted by the whimsical styling. The problem with the New Beetle though, was for a car with retro roots, where do you go from there? What is the follow up act? Yes, Beetle Turbos and a convertible followed, as well as some special editions, but after the initial fury, with little in the way of development, the New Beetle carried on largely unchanged (save for a minor refresh in 2006) for a staggering twelve years. To go on that long without much change is unheard of, and it seemed as Volkswagen lost interest in the New Beetle, so did buyers, and the sagging sales figures prove it. Although there was a Final Edition, the New Beetle ceased production in 2010, and even us Beetle-crazed Americans did not seem to notice, or care.
But, Volkswagen had not given up. At the 2011 New York International Auto Show, The Garage met the new 2012 Volkswagen Beetle. There was nothing awful about the New Beetle, but there was a major issue-its perception as being a chick car. Cute, petite curvy lines, and a bud vase on the dash all pointed to the fairer sex. And few men want to be seen driving a car that most dismiss as a chick car. The Beetle addresses that stigma head on while not alienating the New Beetle faithful. The bud vase is gone, and face it, it is not a Beetle without some familiar curves, but the Beetle cuts a more aggressive look, appearing lower, wider, and slightly more aggressive than the car preceding it.
With the new Beetle (it is no longer New Beetle), VW delved further to the original car rather than refining the Concept 1. This approach seems to have worked, as I received several compliments about the car-from guys, so it is clear the differences are significant enough that the average person can tell, and that is important to VW’s efforts. Another clever twist is VW going into its old paint catalog and resurrecting some familiar, vintage hues. Our test car was finished in a distinctive Denim Blue, which certainly set it apart from the crowd. For the more conservative buyer, VW does offer colors in line with modern tastes, so fear not. Our car was fitted with nondescript 17″ alloys, a shame, since I have seen the latest Beetle rolling on cool looking reproduction dog dish style wheels, which would have perfectly complimented our car’s retro paint color.
Anyone who has driven a modern VW will be instantly at home in the Beetle, but as expected, the Beetle offers far more flair. Upper door panels and dash painted to match the exterior brighten things up, which was welcome in our Titan Black interior. A two tier glove box is unique, and again, a nod to the original Beetle. Passengers are greeted with an airy cabin with plenty of room for all. Fit and finish and build quality are on par with what we expect from a VW built for a global market, as opposed the latest crop of dumbed down and cheap feeling American VW’s. But perhaps the crowning achievement of the Beetle interior proves you can be retro, funky, and functional at the same time, a point completely lost on the interior designers of the MINI Cooper.
The Beetle is available with an array of engine choices, starting with the base 2.5L inline five cylinder, a 2.0L turbocharged four, and our test car’s 2.oL TDI-a turbocharged diesel. This is an engine The Garage has sampled before, and its smoothness, punchy torque and excellent fuel economy continue to impress. We cannot overstate just how far VW has come along with diesel technology. Throw out your perception of the loud, smoky diesels of the past. Had I not told people this was a diesel powered car, they never would have know it. It is that good. And with EPA mileage figures of 29/39 MPG city/highway fuel economy figures, that is near hybrid levels but with a far more engaging driving experience. Beetle TDI buyers can choose between a six-speed manual or DSG manual automatic. Our test car was fitted with the DSG, which generally worked well, but some buyers might be miffed at the lack of shift paddles.
The Beetle TDI is a great little car, and in VW fashion, well, you are going to pay a little extra. While a base 2.5L Beetle comes in at just under $20,000USD, the most inexpensive TDI with a six-speed manual starts at $23,495. Our test car included the Sunroof, Sound and Navigation Package, which included a Fender premium audio system with XM satellite radio, panoramic sunroof, heated seats, Bluetooth, and push-button start. Including destination along with a couple minor accessories, our Beetle TDI rang in at $28,360. That’s a good chunk of change for a Beetle, but for a funky, diesel powered two door hardtop, from a price standpoint there is not much to compare it to.
I am glad VW decided to go another round with the Beetle when it seemed as they had all but forgotten about the car. And for all the retro-inspired cars out there, the Beetle easily qualifies as one of the most practical and easiest to live with. Yes, a MINI Cooper will outhandle you, but the Beetle has ergonomics you can actually understand at a glance. The Fiat 500 may have more charisma, but the Beetle has a backseat that can actually accommodate real humans, as well as far superior luggage space. The Beetle proves that you can be fun without compromise. Sure, it gives up a few things to the MINI and Fiat, but when it comes down to a car you own and live with year in, year out, what the Beetle has on offer makes it the most practical choice.
The latest Beetle won’t generate the hype and madness as when the New Beetle arrived, even though it is a vastly superior car. We’re accustomed to seeing Beetles back on the road. Of course, VW is coming out with a Beetle convertible, but what the future holds from there is unclear. Why, you ask? This is not a car VW needs to make. They have the Golf for Europe, and the Jetta for America as their respective best sellers. For now, the Beetle is new, but will VW wait another twelve years before another overhaul? We shall see, but for now, the latest Beetle is definitely worth a look for anyone in the market for a practical car with a retro touch.