“I mean, this car is dead, right? The only people who bought the last one were fifty-year old Sally Schoolteachers, and they’re all sixty years old now. There’s no volume in this car. Can’t be any volume. The buyers are almost dead. And it isn’t fun to drive AT ALL. What would you rather have, this or a MINI?” The fellow shooting the rapid-fire queries at me from the passenger seat as I drove a five-cylinder 2012 Beetle through Northern Virginia was one of those authentic American types: the Straight-Shooting Self-Styled Marketing Expert. I encounter a lot of S-S,S-SME’s on press trips, and most of them are also Self-Deluded Fools. Not this guy. He was smart, he was articulate, and I didn’t have any easy answers to his questions.
The 2012 Beetle is (much) wider and (fractionally) lower. The new styling is intended to appeal to male buyers as well as the aforementioned Sally Schoolteacher. Dynamically and functionally, it’s a massive step past its predecessor. If you liked the old New Beetle, you’ll probably really like this one. The question still remains, however: who’s going to buy one? And why?
If ever there was a company that liked to hold on to its old platforms and/or designs, it’s Volkswagen. Forget the fact that the original Type I was built in one form or another from 1938 to 2003. Forget the Mk 1 Golf that was still being produced in Africa nearly thirty years after its German debut. Forget the Chinese Mk 2 Jettas that are still being sold. The New Beetle itself was sold for over thirteen years. It was the first “A4″ Volkswagen to hit these shores and the last to leave, sold in showrooms side-by-side with the “A6″ Jetta.
As a Mark Four A-platform (VWVortex.com members non-ironically pronounce it “Emm Kay Eye Vee” in conversation) the New Beetle was blessed and cursed by that type’s virtues and shortcomings. The interiors were fabulous but short-lived, the styling was delightful but forced some unfortunate compromises on seating position and interior visibility, and a veritable cavalcade of mechanical parts were likely to commit suicide and/or detach themselves from the car during any ownership experience lasting more than a week. Let’s not forget the optional 1.8t five-valve turbo four-cylinder, which was originally designed to have just over three quarts of oil in the pan. Owners of that particular model soon learned that it was necessary to walk back into their VW dealer’s service bay and personally supervise the oil change, because the dealers couldn’t be bothered to remember how much oil any of their cars took. Otherwise, the engines wouldn’t even make it to their first unexpected ignition coil pack failure.
The Mk IV Volkswagens were the Amy Winehouses of German-brand whips: sassy, sweet, devastatingly competent at times, occasionally sexy, and ultimately self-destructive. VW knows that an entire generation of buyers were burned out of their socks by those cars, and as a result your humble author was forced to sit and listen to an hour-long harangue by the company’s bigwigs regarding all the wonderful things that have been done to make Volkswagens the highest-quality cars money can buy. At one point, somebody had the nerve to mention AutoPacific ratings.
It was a relief to escape the briefing and meet the Beetle in the metal. For the record, I like the new styling from the front and sides, but the back somehow manages to look generic, particularly at a distance. The optional “heritage” alloy wheels, which have a massive polished cap and evoke the original VW dog-dish upgrade hubcaps, are splendid. The various Beetles I drove didn’t attract much attention on the road from anyone besides the occasional guy in a lowered Emm Kay Ivv. Even current Beetle owners didn’t look twice. This may be a good thing; it certainly hasn’t hurt MINI to have the second-generation “new” car look almost identical to its predecessor.
Inside, it’s a different story. As you can see in the photos, the painted plastic-pretending-to-be-metal panels are extremely convincing. I would have liked to see the steering-wheel spokes be real metal, because fingers, like Shakira’s hips, don’t lie when it comes to distinguishing metal from plastic. It calls the rest of the illusion into doubt. Regardless, this is an extremely pleasant interior. With the big sunroof shade rolled back, the sun literally pours into the car, the cheerful colored trim “pops”, and the sense of well-being is almost overwhelming.
The seating position itself is enough of a reason for New Beetle owners to trade in their current cars. The original “Concept 1″, which became the New Beetle, was draped over the Polo platform. Stretching it over a Golf created a rather odd seat/dashboard/windshield relationship. Driving the original New Beetle is a lot like driving a GM “dustbuster” minivan. The dash stretches to the horizon in a horrifying monotony of slowly degrading soft-touch plastics. It’s very far from optimal, to put it mildly, and it’s completely fixed in the New New Beetle That Is Just Called Beetle Now. A steeper windshield, shorter dash, and repositioned seat make the Beetle completely normal to drive. There’s no mental adjustment required when moving from a Golf to a Beetle or vice versa.
Our test 2.5 has the six-speed automatic, which is a torque-converter conventional transmission and NOT a DSG. That’s a good thing in my book; if Volkswagen has a proven driveline in its current inventory, it is probably this rather prosaic 170-horse five-cylinder and the slushbox. Shift points have been lowered for improved EPA ratings, so it’s not uncommon to look down and find the Beetle loafing along at 1100 rpm on the road. This is not a car for people in a hurry.
Nor is the suspension a willing accomplice for back-road stupidity. The Beetle Turbo, which will be the subject of a separate review later in the week, ain’t bad when it’s time to hustle. The plain Beetle has no such ability. It is pleasant to drive and no more. Only Corolla drivers will find it “sporty”. MINI drivers, as my friend suggested, will think they’ve gotten into a Town Car.
VW’s announced pricing is reasonable, starting at $18,995. The base MINI is fractionally more expensive, but the price gap widens as the order form gains checked boxes. Some of the fun Beetle options: a “Kaferbach” double glovebox as seen above, bi-Xenons with a cute rounded LED strip, and a big sunroof which should be considered mandatory for anyone really looking to enjoy their Beetle experience.
Who’s going to buy this car? I couldn’t tell you. It seems unlikely that men will flock to the Beetle. The original New Beetle customers, as previously alluded, are not going to provide a lot of volume. The nostalgic appeal has probably been more or less burned out by thirteen years of an occasionally troublesome predecessor. It’s a shame, really, because this is the car the New Beetle should have been years ago. It’s competent, enjoyable, pleasant, cute. It hits all the targets. You may not see a lot of them on the road, but I won’t quibble with anybody who decides to put one in her — excuse me, his or her — driveway.