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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

July 03, 1998

My next-door neighbor Joe Smejkal stores his daughter's seldom-used '75 Volkswagen Beetle in his side yard where it awaits restoration. So when we received the New Beetle for evaluation, it was natural that we put the two cars together for a neighborhood snapshot session. We also did comparative road tests and had these impressions:

INSIDE (old) - Its been a while since I sat in a vintage Bug and really looked it over. It's very close and cozy, but it's definitely a one-size-fits-all cockpit. I'd forgotten how little attention had been paid to such amenities as form-fitting comfortable seats or lumbar and thigh support. The back seat is even more primitive with a simple bench seat (which, incidentally, covers the battery box) and an equally primitive padded back support. The skinny steering wheel is close to the driver's chest and the windshield isn't very far ahead. The simple instrumentation is in one round cluster (speedometer, gas gauge plus indicator lights to monitor other vital functions) located on its flat dashboard right in front of the driver with brake, clutch and accelerator pedals sprouting from the floor pan. But the hand still falls easily onto the gearshift lever and its easy action makes driving a low-powered Bug lots of fun.

INSIDE (new) - After sitting in its illustrious but humble ancestor, the interior of the New Beetle seems cavernous but luxurious. Due to the style-driven curvature of its top, it's almost possible for the driver to wear a top hat without coming in contact with the roof. Its front bucket seats are ergonomically designed with good thigh and lumbar support but the back seat is definitely "Vintage VW" with a tight fit and little head clearance. The instruments and gauges are modern, of course, and includes a tachometer, but all are cleverly contained in a cluster that is reminiscent of the original. In place of the archaic AM radio most often found in the original, the New Beetle packs a fancy AM-FM/cassette/CD system. Air conditioning is available, as are power windows, items unfathomable in the original. The new dash curves into the windshield which is so far ahead of the driver that it takes some time to get the hang of parallel parking.

OUTSIDE (old) - How do you describe the body of a car that has the most recognizable shape in the world? The old Beetle is functionally curved with bumpers front and rear whose jobs in life are to keep other cars from bumping into the body. No style-statement here. The purpose of the fenders is to keep water and dirt under the car and to house the simple sealed-beam headlights in front and the surface-mounted tail lights in back. All four fenders are bolted to the body for easy replacement and the practical function of the bonnet in back is to cover the engine while the hood in front covers a minuscule luggage compartment. In earlier old Beetles, it also covered the fuel tank, which was conveniently located right in front of the front seats. In those early days of VW design, form followed function.

OUTSIDE (new) - The New Beetle is a study in how to make people smile. Its body is even more curvy than the original, but in a more conscious mode and it looks for all the world like a cartoon character. The front air scoop is located down low as not to spoil the vintage look. It's hard not to chuckle at the Beetle's human-like grin when viewed from the front. The New Beetle presents an equally-pleasing puppy-dog smile when view from the rear. Coming or going, the car is a pleasure to behold in this era of Machowagens.

ON THE ROAD (old) - Former Grand Prix world driving champion Phil Hill once stated that his favorite "street racer" was the original 36 horsepower VW of the '50s. Two of them could drag racing a quarter-mile from a stop sign and still be within the legal speed limit at the end. None of the evolutionary ancestral Beetles were characteristically quick and the driver had to "row" the gear shifter enthusiastically to stay up with traffic. The traditional air-cooled flat-four engines were wondrously simple, with four individual cylinders bolted to a crankcase, and the ratios in the four-speed manual transmission were spread just far enough apart to keep the Mighty Mite within its power band. In keeping with the objectives of the car, the trailing arm suspension up front was rugged, as was the swing-axle system in back, but when treated carelessly in a turn, the latter could invert the little Bug with embarrassing ease.

ON THE ROAD (new) - The 115-horse 2.0 liter water-cooled engine in the New Beetle is in the front and easily allows the car to keep up with traffic. The manual five-speed transmission is also a delight to use and the suspension front and rear is as modern as the new VW Golf. This is understandable since the New Beetle is in reality a new Golf wearing a clown suit. Unfortunately, the engine in the New Beetle doesn't have that raspy "thump-thump" exhaust note of the original air-cooled unit, but neither does it have the "singing whistle" inherent with the original Rabbit and Jetta sedan.

The Smejkal Volkswagen is a '75 model, but differs little from the two '49 versions that were sold in this country that year. It is also one of 4.6 million Beetles sold here before the car gave way to the VW Rabbit in '79. It rests comfortably in Joe's yard, requiring only a battery charge or a bump-start to spring to life.

It's doubtful that the New Beetle will last relatively unchanged on the U.S. market for 30 years as did its ancestor, so we must enjoy it while we can. It's the only new car I know of that can invoke smiles and waves from pedestrians and other drivers by simply being driven down the street.