Want to know the secret to angering the Volkswagen
PR guys? Ask them if the brand-new 2012 VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
"isn't just a GTI in a Halloween costume." They'd sock you one if they could, but luckily, they can't. But they would do well to remember that a large part of Volkswagen
history consists of dressing up an existing chassis in a new outfit. After all, what was the VW Type 3 if not a Type 1 with 200 extra CCs, a rubberized subframe, and some new metal? Then you've got the Type 14 Karmann Ghia and -- dare I say it -- the Porsche
356. Point is, there's no great shame in dressing up an existing chassis, especially when Wolfsburg does it. There would only be shame if the newly garbed car weren't any good.
Like, say, the last Beetle, the second-generation "New Beetle" that introduced the world to the unfortunate, oxymoronic marketing cutism called "retromodernism." That car also took the notion of cute to previously unexplored heights, with a polarizing, childish design that was instantly recognizable as a Bug, and looked the same coming and going. Remember, the New VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
was one of the cars Brad Pitt and Ed Norton beat with baseball bats in "Fight Club." The last VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
even got itself tagged with the unenviable label of "chick car," though it was worse than that. Long story short: Hot chicks drive Jettas; weird chicks drive Bugs. Despite all that, the New Bug sold well enough for Volkswagen, with just under 600,000 copies (both hard tops and convertibles) purchased in the U.S. and about 1.2 million worldwide during its 13-year production run. Not bad, but remember, that's around a twentieth of the original's staggering 21.5 million units.
Volkswagen remembers. And amazingly, it even admits to getting the last car somewhat "wrong," a huge admission for a German PR person. I nearly knocked over a glass of water mit gas during the recent launch of the new VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
in Berlin when Christian Buhlmann from VW communications mused out loud about "correcting the mistakes of the last Beetle." He says the Bug needs to appeal to a wider audience, and to do so, Volkswagen
has made the third-generation car more "sporty and masculine." But VW also brought in touches from the first Beetle, a car that's as iconic and beloved as the Jeep
and Mustang. As design boss Walter de' Silva coined it, VW had to "Design a new original." No small task, that. I'd put it right below redesigning the wheel, but with a much smaller chance of success. But Volkswagen
took a swing.
Compared to the last car, the 2012 VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
is a 1960s Detroit product: longer, lower and wider. The third-gen car is a full 6 inches longer, 3.5 inches wider, and half an inch closer to the ground. The track and the wheelbase have also been increased. More noticeably, the hood and roof are flatter, and the windshield is more upright, a look that's evocative of the 1930s original (as well as the Tatra T97, where VW got the look from). Volkswagen
only had Turbo models on hand for us to sample in Berlin. Mechanically, that car's a GTI. The 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 makes 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. The front wheels are driven through either the familiar six-speed DSG (VW-speak for its dual-clutch transmission) or a six-speed manual, though the cars on hand were all DSG. There are half-a-dozen engine and transmission choices for the rest of the world, but the U.S. will get the Turbo, a 2.5-liter I-5, or a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel. Volkswagen's claiming that the DSG-equipped Turbo cars will get 22/30 mpg city/ highway. For a sporty car, that's great. Oddly, the 2.5-liter gets only 22/29, though of course it costs less.
Those who have been shrieking that Volkswagen
lost its way because it cheapened the new Jetta's interior should buy the new Bug. While not the soft-touch paradise that defined the fifth- and sixth-gen Golfs and sixth-gen Jettas, the cabin is remarkably nice. The dashboard and instrument cluster are quite attractive, looking both purposeful and chic, and, Volkswagen
claims, evocative of the original Bug. I'm not so sure about that last bit, as I don't remember any Type 1s with carbon-fiber-look materials. However, that's just the Turbo. Less potent Beetles will get bodycolor matched dash and door pieces. There's also a nifty little "kaferfach," or VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
Bin, essentially a small second vertical glove box located in the same spot as in the original. Sadly, the iPod cable still resides in the less-accessible lower glove box. Even though the roof's been flattened, there's still a shocking amount of headroom, even with the sunroof.