2012 VW Beetle: Don't call it New (but it is)
First off, we have to establish one thing: the newest Beetle is not the New Beetle. Conversely, the New Beetle is now officially not new. Volkswagen is about to supersede it with a newer version - the newest version to date - that will begin arriving in Volkswagen showrooms in the United States in late September. The U.S. launch will be followed by launches in Europe and Asia, which demonstrates how important the American market is to the eventual success of this successor in a three-generation line of iconic motorcars.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the original Volkswagen Beetle, though it was not, as VW officials tried to assert, the first mass-market vehicle. That title should rightly be bestowed on the Ford Model T, while the Austin 7, which was essentially Europe's Model T, also pre-dated the Beetle. But after its 1938 introduction the Beetle sold in prolific numbers: some 21 million globally all told, enough to land it in second place on the all-time sales list behind the numerous editions of the Toyota Corolla. While the Corolla has sold in larger numbers, only the Beetle can be conveyed to people on every continent with two swipes of a pen. And in creating the newest Beetle that clear delineation was what the designers were trying to capture. VW design chief Walter de Silva gave the directive "create a new classic," and in attempting to do so the designers leaned heavily on the old. Unlike the New Beetle, the newest Beetle relies quite heavily on the design of the original, especially in profile.
Though by most measures the New Beetle was a success - some one million were sold since it came to market in 1998 -- there were a few things about it that Volkswagen designers and engineers set out to correct with the new model. One was the bulbous windshield that resulted in a vast dashboard and a certain disconnectedness from the driving experience. The second might be described as the preciousness of the New Beetle interior that included the famous bud vase, a cheeky bow to the original design and a wild anachronism in the 1990's car culture into which the New Beetle was launched. The third is very likely a result of the first two: the New Beetle was purchased by women in about a two-to-one ratio versus men, an almost unheard of feminine skew for what is supposed to be a mass-market car. This time around Volkswagen is so adamant about not leaving men out of the buying group that one of the words it uses to describe the new design is "masculine." How really masculine the design is we'll let you decide, but VW executives point to its more vertical windshield angle, its wider track, its flatter hood and flatter roof as efforts to help the new design appeal more to men than the super-cute New Beetle.
In terms of performance -- something men are typically more interested in than women -- the newest Beetle has its bases covered. The three-tiered model offering includes a Turbo version, complete with 200-horsepower turbocharged engine, performance suspension, DSG paddle-shift manual-automatic, 19-inch wheels and the appropriate hey-look-at-me graphics. Even for those not interested in the Turbo, a performance suspension, manual transmission and larger wheel-tire packages are available in the Sport trim. The base Beetle model features a softer and more ride-oriented suspension.
So what is it like to drive the new Beetle? As part of its recent presentation to gathered press in Berlin, VW showed a video of TV personality Jay Leno opining that the newest Beetle "drives like a Beetle." That comment drew a small hoot from some of the audience but once we drove the car, we can see what he was getting at. Our opinion is that the new model accelerates, corners and brakes very much like a Volkswagen Golf -- so much so that from the inside it is easy to forget you are driving a vehicle that looks so different on the outside. At once this is a major strength and perhaps a minor failing. We, like most auto experts, are big fans of the Golf's various iterations, so a car that captures that driving experience has got to be good. At the same time we wonder if the driver of the Beetle wants to be reminded that he or she is in a Beetle in the same way a driver of a MINI Cooper is always reminded he or she is in a MINI.
A full road test and vehicle review will have to wait until we have more time to put the various versions of the 2012 Beetle through its paces, but our first impression is that Volkswagen has done an excellent job with the Beetle dynamically. Though there are a few things we might quibble with, we would also give the exterior design high marks, feeling that it does make the model a more viable choice for men. As to the interior, it is worlds better than the New Beetle and not only because it fixes the acres of dashboard that plagued the previous car. It still has a high cowl, and that is exacerbated by a three-instrument pod that sits atop the dash, but otherwise it is current Volkswagen, which we regard as very good. We simply wish it has a few more special features that call it out as the interior of a Beetle. And we don't mean a bud vase.