Earlier this week, Volkswagen officially revealed the all-new 2012 VW Beetle. After months of teases, the slightly more relaxed silhouette and softened 'Beetle dome' wasn't so much of a surprise. Yet the exterior details, which come across as less soft and carefree, more sporty and aggressive, hint that this is no love bug.
And then there's the interior. The original New Beetle came with an interior that looked nothing—absolutely nothing—like that of the Golf, Jetta, or GTI with which it shared some underpinnings. However, the new version of the Beetle trades off the distinctive for a sporty but somewhat ordinary looking instrument panel.
Out with the flower vase, in with the Fender sound system
Processing the design decisions, it's hard to ignore that Volkswagen is clearly trying to make the new (note the lower case) Beetle more butch. The outgoing New Beetle has, for years, landed near the top among vehicles purchased by (and driven by) women, and the flower vase might have had something to do with it.
That flower vase is now gone, replaced by an available modern navigation system, a large glass roof, and a sound system co-developed with the guitar-and-amp maker Fender. If VW has its way, it's a lady bug no more.
But is it losing its charm in the process? Earlier this week, in a live chat, we started to tackle such questions, and it's worth thinking about the mark that the New Beetle has made on car culture. It's essentially the car that kicked off (at least for the U.S.) the whole retro-styling revolution, with a host of 'deliberately retro' or 'retro-fashionable' models like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR, and the Mini Cooper following suit.
Of those, the one that had the most ordinary interior—the Chevrolet HHR—has never clicked as a must-have vehicle and has been relegated to fleets, largely.
Women felt like flower girls; men felt like Pee Wee?
The New Beetle rolled out for 1998, which proved perfect timing to both capitalize on aging, empty-nester Boomers who felt nostalgic for a time of patchouli and flower power—but what made it such a lasting, phenomenal sales success is that it also appealed strongly to the daughters (and sons) of that generation.
Originally offered with a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (essentially the same engine that now powers the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta) or the previous-generation (and lower-power), 1.9-liter version of its fuel-efficient, direct-injection turbo-diesel (TDI) four-cylinder engine, the New Beetle was quick enough, but driving it was arguably a novelty. You sat in the middle of what could feel like a bucket. The base of the windshield felt far away. While I loved the original New Beetle, even then I was conflicted about it—it also felt a bit too much like a prop designed for a Pee Wee movie.
VW says that the new dash of the 2012 Beetle, combined with repositioned seating, will yield a more normal driving position. In addition, the softer roof brings more cargo space as well as more backseat space.
A year or so after the New Beetle's launch, VW added its 150-hp, 1.8T engine (later bumped to 200 hp and 2.0 liters in 'New Beetle S' guise) and suddenly the Beetle was a lot of fun to drive.
And in 2003, Volkswagen introduced a New Beetle Convertible. In this form, it could be argued that the aging New Beetle was at its best. The power soft top was well-designed, rode well, and provided eye candy—exactly what many want in a cruiser convertible.
Limited lineup sure didn't help its feminine alignment
Then around 2006, the New Beetle started losing all that made it special. The turbo and TDI engines were cut mercilessly, and the aging 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, from the U.S. Jetta and former VW and Audi products, was made standard, and in a streamlined model lineup, it had fewer upgrades and outdated audio systems.
Over its ten years, the New Beetle saw no significant changes to its exterior or interior. And in a way, Volkswagen penned itself into a corner—the original design was so complete from the start, it didn't have anywhere to go without really screwing up the look.
As of 2010—the last model year for the New Beetle—in our full review we pointed to its still-iconic exterior and good front seats, but we panned it for its unimpressive five-cylinder engine, lackluster fuel economy, and dated, gimmicky interior details. And if that wasn't enough, the backseat couldn't fit anyone larger than a small child, and crash-test results were mediocre.
That same five-cylinder engine is back in the 2012 Beetle (albeit with improved mileage), and the TDI and 2.0T are back.
Still playing to his and hers?
And in a marketing plan that sounds a lot like the one Mercedes-Benz has been using for the current C-Class, Volkswagen plans to sell the 2012 Beetle in two trim lines: Designer and Sport. Each will have a unique character, the brand assures. Is Designer the women's model and Sport the men's?
Has Volkswagen lost its way with this new 2012 Beetle, or is it just what the people need? And will the Beetle make waves in a market where retro is played out? We're still not sure, so let us know what you think.