The cars we loved.

1997-2010 Volkswagen New Beetle: History Almost Repeats

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle
2003 Volkswagen New Beetle

The original VW Beetle was one of the most beloved cars in the world with one of the longest production runs to boot. Originally started in 1938 and ended finally in 2003, the car had long passed from sale in the US by the 80s’. During it’s run in America, it had become the poster car for a generation, countering the excesses of the “Man” with simplicity and efficiency. So it was no wonder that when the Concept 1 prototype was shown at the North American International Autoshow in 1994,it created a stir. Baby Boomers who remembered growing up with the original Beetle were prompted to reminiscewhile a whole new generation was taken by its charms.  Designed by the tag team of J Mays (Thunderbird, Audi TT) and Freeman Thomas at their California design studio, the concept car used a Polo platform. The overwhelmingly positive response convinced VW to move the concept into production and was named the New Beetle in 1997.

Future Retro Design

2003 New Beetle Cabriolet

2003 New Beetle Cabriolet

The new car combined the classic profile of the original with a kind of machined futurist look that was retro, but progressive as well. The final production car end up with the larger Golf IV platform as opposed to the Polo of the concept. Sales were brisk, with long waiting lists as buyers could not get enough of the new Beetle. Like the old car, the new Beetle had become a movie star as the centerpiece in Disney’s Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005. Countless other film and TV appearances established the New Beetle as the car of choice amongst characters seen as stylish, cutesy or pinheaded. Toughtful touches like the flower vase next to the steering wheel added to the cute factor, making the New Beetle an overwelmingly female perferred car. The press was generally approving,stereotypes aside. Most pointed out the specious interior, versatility and undeniable cute factor. The New Beetle became Motor Trends Import Car of the Year in 1999.  Sales remained strong and recived a shot in the arm when the attractive (but expensive) cabriolet was introduced in 2003. Time would reveal flaws in the car’s design, that those leasing for short terms may not have noticed.

Truly Modern
Unlike the original car, the New Beetle was a complex car with a front engine and front wheel drive layout. New Beetle production has moved to a few locations during its production cycle. For the first two years all cars were built in Germany, then production moved to Mexico. The move to Mexico was not new for VW, but it might have played a part in the problems that plagued many New Beetles. Electrical and transmission issues were common, prompting many drivers to switch to other cutesie cars like the Mini once lease terms were over. The unfortunate mechanical problems would be just part of the frustration for owners as designed-in dealer dependencies required removal of fenders just to change light bulbs making simple routine services expensive. Some of the mechanical issues were resolved, but not before the New Beetles reputation was somewhat tarnished.

New Beetle RSi

New Beetle RSi

More Style Than Performance
Initially there were two engines available. The base 2.0 inline four had only 115hp, but when combined with the five-speed manual managed to be fun to drive. Curiously, fuel efficency was poor, due in part to the high-profile aero signature and weight of a car.  With top in class headroom and dual airbags and an assortment of safety features it was no light weight like the Beetle of old. The New Beetle was generally a well engineered car, but lacked items that had become commonplace on cheaper cars like standard ABS brakes. In 1999, the feature became standard along with a few other features and options, maing the Bug more competitive.
For those more concerned with efficiency there was always the trusty 1.9L turbodiesel. Some manner of performance did not arrive untill the turbo/sport models came in 2002. They used a 150hp 1.8L turbo similar to what was being used in many other VW cars. Later the Turbo S arrived with a 180hp version of the 1.8. A Turbo S with a 6-speed manual transmission could do 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds and reach an electronically limited top speed of 130mph. That was hardly average for a performance coupe but VW never really saw the New Beetle as much more than a trendy halo car. All New beetles handled rather well, even with a cost saving semi-independent rear suspension. Generally VW’s message to performance minded buyers: get a Golf GTi or VR6 Jetta if you wanted to bring the heat.

However true performance as a Beetle came in the form of a limited edition RSi. Produced in very limited numbers between 2001-04, the four-wheel drive 18 in wheels lower and wider profile stood out from ordinary New Beetles. The RSi was powered with 3.2L VR6 producing 250hp. At nearly $60k, the RSi became a collector object and proof from VW that New Beetle could indeed be a high performance (if not a little noisy) car. The Recardo seats, aggressive spoilers and ground effects made the once sweet and lovable beetle look suddenly swolen, gruff and manly. Little if any of the performance bits from the RSi ever made it to the standard car. That did not stop VW from introducing the occasional Beetle based concept like the 4×4 Dune to stir up and maintain interest.

For the Love of Oprah
More practical special editions came in the form of limited color paint options. In the fast-moving auto market place of today, the Beetle practically stood still. Never intended to change much over the course of its life-cycle, the Beetle grew tired looking as small changes to tail lights and front air ducts were the only real changes. The selection of engines narrowed to one in 2005,
just as production was wrapping up from the factory in Mexico. A 2.5L 150hp inline 5 combined some of the power and efficiency of previous engine choices into a more responsive and efficient engine. Slated for replacement in 2012, the second generation car is slated for introduction later in 2011 as a 2012 model. It’s maker promises a sportier car with better performance. One can
only hope that some of the problems plaguing the last car are addressed, like the serviceability issue. Thanks to the magic of Oprah, the general public got a glimpse of the next Beetle as members of her studio audience were all given keys to their very own 2012 Beetles (when they became available). For a car unreleased to have made it to “Oprah’s Favorite Things” segment, suggests that it is either a knockout or that Oprah time travels. I think it’s the second option, but either way the next car will have some big shoes to fill as the last car was a hit and never caught Oprah’s attention, even after 13 or so years on the market.


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This entry was posted on July 13, 2011 by in 00's, 10's Cars, 90's cars, Volkswagon and tagged , , , , , .


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