Driver's Seat: New Beetle disappointing to an old fan

Posted: April 20, 2011

NEW YORK - The curtain that hid the 2012 Beetle from the public came down Monday, revealing a car that is longer, lower, wider, and faster than its predecessor. But the general public might have a hard time telling the two versions apart.

The woodland images from the memorable Super Bowl commercial featuring a beetle scurrying through the jungle played on the screen, and "Black Betty" shook the room just before the curtain fell. The images cracked apart as the new model hatched.

Jonathan Browning, president of Volkswagen of America, knew he had a big task on his hands, opening his remarks by remembering the original incarnation's more than 23 million sales worldwide and calling it "one of the most widely recognized cars on the planet."

"The Beetle makes driving fun. As someone once put it, it's the car that measures distance in smiles as well as miles," Browning said.

He faces guys like me - with my rusty '68 Beetle hardtop in the back of the garage - and can't win.

It's hard to imagine all these executives keeping their well-paying jobs by saying, "Like the air-cooled, engine-in-the-rear original, we made her slow, loud, smelly, practically defrosterless, and cramped, but she has a lot of personality." So I understand they have their work cut out for them.

Luca De Meo, head of marketing for Volkswagen of America, continued saluting the original in his remarks, remembering the six million cars sold in the United States and calling it "a kind of monument."

"With monuments, you try to polish them and maybe get back to the real colors," De Meo said.

So De Meo said Volkswagen aimed for three things: To bring back the tough, affordable spirit of the car, to reconnect with the emotion, and to bring the car into the 21st century.

The four elements De Meo highlighted: An electronic differential to make it nimble and agile, "like Herbie in the movie," the Direct-Shift Gearbox dual-clutch transmission, 230 horsepower in the GTI version, and a Fender sound system.

And yet Klaus Bischoff, Volkswagen's brand-design chief, said the company "threw away everything" when it went back to the drawing board.

Some pieces thrown away: The round taillights that paid homage to the original. The very round roof and fenders of the 1998-2010 edition.

The flattened roof does bring the Beetle closer to the original in one aspect, by pushing the windshield closer to the dashboard. And the new dashboard does offer a hard-shell trim around the glove box that gives the sense of the original. And even though it's now bigger, it remains a four-seater.

Volkswagen tried: The second generation was nice, but it lacked a certain somethin' somethin'.

It also somehow lacked masculinity, as two-thirds of buyers have been women. Bischoff did say the company aimed to make it more sporty, dynamic, and "masculine."

The thing is, the kind of adoration people have for the original is a grassroots thing. It can't come from the top down. Trying to build it into a machine is like deciding "I'm going to fall in love today" or willing yourself to go to sleep when insomnia strikes.

It's hard to market this. The debut Monday was a far cry from the understated ads of the 1960s, such as a headline under a picture of a Beetle that simply said "Lemon."

And in times like these, as gas climbs to $4 a gallon, perhaps a four-seater that does better than 31 m.p.g. highway in standard form would draw more applause.

The debut was a worldwide event Monday. It took place on three continents: In Berlin, Shanghai, and New York. Fallout Boy bassist Pete Wentz deejayed the driving beats at the New York unveiling at a pier beneath the Manhattan Bridge. The Black Eyed Peas ended the daylong celebration with a concert in partnership with MTV.

People's Car? Well, I guess we're just a different people than the folks from the middle 1900s.

And as for me? I'm going to keep saving my pennies and get old Thunderbolt back out on the road.


Driver's Seat: The 2012 Beetle

Growth spurt: It grows 3.3 inches to 71.2 inches wide; 6 inches in length to 168.4; and half an inch lower to 58.5 inches. (The original was 158-160 inches long, 60.6 inches wide, 59.1 inches tall.)

Under the hood - yes, in the front, not the back: Engines include the 2.5-liter five-cylinder with five-speed manual or six-speed automatic, 2.0 TDI four-cylinder, and 2.0 turbo four with six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Economical? The 5-cylinder is estimated to get 22 m.p.g. city or 31 highway, up 10 percent. The TDI will reach 40 m.p.g.

When will you see it? Look for a September or October debut.

Body styles: Two-door hatchback first; convertible to come, sometime in 2012.

Where will it come from? Mexico.


Contact Scott Sturgis

at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

For another look at the automotive world, visit Sturgis' blog, A Different Spin, at www.philly.com/differentspin

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