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New Car Review

Volkswagen, The New Beetle: A First Look

By Carey Russ


SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide

The original Volkswagen Beetle was, and is, one of the most significant automobiles in history. Like the Model T Ford before it, the venerable Type 1 Volkswagen brought personal transportation to a significant number of people. It probably holds a record for production longevity - as of November 1997, 400 were still being built each day at VW's plant in Puebla, Mexico. Over 21 million have been built since series production began after World War II, with official U. S. sales of 4,988,350.

The "Beetle" and "Bug" nicknames were American inventions, and it was in this country that the car had its greatest success. "Cult car" hardly describes the phenomenon, as most such vehicles have limited appeal only to dedicated fanatics. The Beetle's attraction was much more widespread. It was inexpensive basic transportation. It was an affordable European import when most European imports were status symbols for the upper classes. It was not just a protest against the large American cars of the time, it was a protest against any expensive car, or even any car. The old Beetle was as close to being all things to all people as a car could be, and became a cultural icon as much as an automobile. A sizable percentage of people in the "Baby Boomer" generation have had the Beetle experience. If you are of that age and didn't personally own one (or two, or three, or five...), you likely had friends or family members who did. The Beetle, and especially its Microbus offshoot, became identified with the hippie counterculture movement in the late 1960s, but hippies were far from the only Beetle and Bus lovers. The Beetle even became a movie star, in the persona of "Herbie the Love Bug". Baby boomers, though, were not the only generation affected by the Beetle. There are plenty of Beetles in everyday use today, in every condition imaginable.

The Beetle was built to a standard unknown for inexpensive cars of its time. It was reliable relative to most other vehicles of the time, and simple to maintain. Beetle modifications were legion, with fiberglass sports car and dune buggy bodies, "Baja Bug" conversions, and engine and suspension hop-up kits readily available. Formula Vee, a racing class for cars built largely of Beetle parts, continues today. The lowly Beetle was a raging success, and some versions are serious collectibles today, but its origins in mid-1930s technology proved to be its undoing in the U.S.

By the late 1970s, the Beetle's simple air-cooled engine ran afoul of American air-pollution regulations, and its chassis design was not amenable to crash safety standards. Competition also had become much tougher. By then, the car had been in production (with constant incremental improvements) for 30 years, and the basic design itself was over 40 years old. The car was a success by any standard, and a very tough act to follow. Although the replacement Golf, first known here as the Rabbit, was hardly a failure in the U. S., it never had the wide appeal of the Beetle. Volkswagen's market share dropped, and the company even considered abandoning the U.S. market in the early 1990s.

Perseverance furthers. Not only did VW stay in the American marketplace, the company introduced the "Concept One" show car at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. Concept One was developed at VW's design center in Simi Valley, California, not in Germany. It was an American tribute to an adopted American icon, the Beetle. The German home office was not prepared for the reaction from the American press and public. "We were, to say the least, overwhelmed," said Volkswagen chairman Dr. Ferdinand Pi‰ch. In March, 1994, the Concept One entered Volkswagen engineering offices in Wolfsburg, Germany. It was decided that it would be built, and the Golf platform was selected as the base. Development was rapid. By mid-1995, the first prototype was shown to VW management for approval. In January, 1998, the production New Beetle - that is its official name - was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show. To say that it was a success would be massive understatement.

The New Beetle was introduced to the world's automotive press last week in Atlanta, GA. Why Georgia instead of Germany? It will be the first Volkswagen ever to be introduced to the world in the U.S. It goes on sale here in early April. Its European debut will be at the Paris Auto Show in October and will not be available in Europe until later 1998. Just to underscore the importance of the American marketplace to Volkswagen, the North American press saw and drove the car the day before the Europeans. It was a near-surrealistic experience.

The New Beetle is very little changed in looks from the Concept One. Other show cars have reached production with very little change, but they were not mass-market automobiles. The New Beetle is, with a base price of $15,200. It has not lost the whimsical, smile- inducing cartoonish look of the Concept One. If Roger Rabbit had appeared in the midst of the 55 New Beetles parked at the Atlanta Horse Park, he would have looked right at home. It's a car that makes you smile, whether you are driving it or just looking at it.

The New Beetle has all of the character and charm of the old Beetle, and none of the old car's drawbacks. It is a fully modern automobile, as good or better than anything in its class for comfort, power, and handling, and unlike anything on the road for style. Unlike its spiritual ancestor, it has a real heater. Air conditioning, power windows, leather upholstery and trim, and an automatic transmission are all available. Like the old Bug, front seat head and legroom are wonderful, and rear seat accommodations less so. Still, it is much roomier than the old Beetle, and its interior design is as fresh and unusual as the exterior.

The New Beetle was an interesting car to drive on the highways and semi-rural roads near Atlanta. Rarely have I noticed much interest from onlookers during auto introductions. Even new sports cars don't seem to attract undue attention. The New Beetle was an exception - a major exception. Smiles, thumbs-up, even people standing in the road forcing the cars to stop for a better view...public reaction was amazing. Half of the fun of driving the car was watching public reaction.

The other half of the fun-to-drive equation was due to the car's Golf underpinnings. Compared to even a late 60-horsepower Beetle, any version of the New Beetle is a rocket sled. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is estimated by VW at around 11 seconds; my 1969 Beetle took somewhat longer. No problem going up hills in the new Beetle. The suspension seems a bit firmer than that of the Golf. The base model is competitive with other cars in its class for ride quality and handling, while the optional sport package offers a feeling that is at the top of its class.

Two 4-cylinder engines are being offered initially. A 2.0-liter, 115-horsepower gasoline engine is standard, and a 90-horsepower 1.9- liter direct-injection turbodiesel (TDI) is optional. A 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic are transmission choices. I had the opportunity to drive a sport package automatic and both base and sport package 5-speed cars. The automatic does have a negative effect on acceleration, but you could spend a whole lot more than $15,000 to make an old Beetle as quick. With well over one hundred journalists and 5 TDIs, I never had the chance to drive the diesel. Those who did raved. I can understand. Although the diesel gives up horsepower to the gas engine, it has much more torque - 149 lb-ft @ 1900 rpm versus 122 @ 2600. That's just the setup for good low speed acceleration. It is also allegedly good for around 50 miles per gallon. For more serious performance attitude, the 150-horsepower turbocharged 20-valve engine used also by the Passat will eventually make its way into the New Beetle's engine bay.

Who will the New Beetle appeal to? As varied a group as did the old Beetle. Some will buy one because they owned an old Beetle. Others will buy because of the looks. Some will find the price attractive, while plenty of folks who could afford a more expensive car will find the New Beetle more appealing. Before seeing and driving the car, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Perhaps, I thought, it's merely an attempt to cash in on the past, a cynical appeal to nostalgia. Now I can't stop grinning!