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From the Armchair: The Beetle Enigma

The status of the New Beetle, a car that placed Volkswagen back on the map in the U.S., has become perplexing. Launched in 1998, the little car that embodies the rich heritage of the Volkswagen brand set forth a retro-modern design movement in product development that has been studied and replicated in various forms, from the Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Chevrolet SSR to the MINI Cooper.

Certainly a trend-setter, the New Beetle is at a crossroad in its production life. Faced with slightly lagging sales and faster depreciation than its more conservative stablemates, one has to wonder if the potential fad-like aspects of the retro trend will be short-lived. Further, poll just about any Volkswagen employee in the know and you’re bound to get the same interrogative statement that goes a little bit like this. “How do you redesign the Beetle?”

At a recent press function following the Frankfurt International Auto Show in September, Volkswagen of America chief Jens Neumann spoke of the New Beetle as a “friend who happens to live in the garage”. His exuberance for the car and its representation of the brand’s core values is obvious. However, seemingly at odds with his excitement for the vehicle is his suggestion that the New Beetle will be built largely unchanged, underpinned by the corporate Mark IV A-chassis for years to come.

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Utilizing old platforms isn’t a new strategy at Volkswagen. Ironically, the aging Mark III A-chassis-based Golf Cabrio was itself recently replaced by a drop-top version of the New Beetle while other Mark III products haven’t been in production since 1998.

With older platforms, Volkswagen is able minimize tooling and development costs and maximize profit. On the balance sheet, that’s great business. However, while the Mark III-based Cabrio rode a fairly successful wave for years after its platform siblings had been retired, the New Beetle may or may not be so lucky. The Cabrio was not as susceptible to the “fad” moniker. The Golf-based converible and the Rabbit Cabriolet before it had been attracting middle-aged women for years, and refreshening of the design was less of a risk than doing the same to the iconic New Beetle. Even the trunk in the Cabrio, while no mass storage device, was larger due to the more practical shape of the vehicle.

So the question remains. What is to become of the New Beetle?

When J. Mays, now head of design at Ford Motor Company, and partner Freeman Thomas first developed the New Beetle, they had a slightly different idea in mind. The prototype that debuted in Detroit, dubbed Concept 1, was smaller than today’s production New Beetle and was a showcase of potential hybrid power. In fact, the first Concept 1 prototypes were based on the Polo-chassis, (AO) though a production New Beetle using the Polo chassis was ruled out as the current Polo at the time was not built for US standards. Sales of the car in North America were paramount in the making of the New Beetle’s business case, forcing the decision to go slightly larger.

Flash forward to the present day. Volkswagen’s newest AO chassis Polo, first shown at Frankfurt in 2001, has in fact been developed with North America in mind. Volkswagen remains coy about any potential for the Polo stateside. Even then, they do so very obviously limiting us to the hatchback and quizzically not considering the sedan version of the car at all for the land where the Jetta remains king of the European imports.

From everything one might read in the European motor press, the Polo looks like an attractive vehicle. Other cars using the same chassis and modified component sets in Europe such as the Skoda Fabia RS and SEAT Ibiza Cupra R show clear performance potential for the chassis. The Ibiza Cupra R even uses Volkswagen’s venerable 1.8T engine.

While conservatively handsome, the Polo won’t win any “Sexiest Car in Class” awards. Its name carries little to no heritage in the USA and its design, unlike the short-lived Lupo GTI, does little to harken back to the original Golf Mark I GTI (a.k.a. Rabbit GTI here in the U.S).

Considering all of the above, the bricks of an idea began be laid in my head regarding a second generation “New Beetle” and the mortar came in the form of a press vehicle I had on loan just last week for sister website Mwerks ( www.mwerks.com ). A 2004 MINI Cooper just spent the week here at my home and it bestowed upon me a fresh outlook on these retro image vehicles in addition to the potential for small vehicles in the United States.

The MINI is a very well developed driver’s car with solid feeling shifter and handling as if it were on rails. The car makes its base price through lower grade plastics in the cabin and a conservative power output like that of our test car’s base engine. Sure, it spiritually has the looks of the MINI brand, but if you figuratively close your eyes while wringing the MINI through its gears or slicing down a windy back road and you could swear that you are in the spiritual successor to the original GTI.

Whether or not MINI will be a money-maker for the BMW Group remains to be seen, but the sheer number of the small British cars I see running about downtown and suburban Washington are beginning to make apparent the appeal of such fashionable and higher-quality small cars, at least in urban environments.

In case you’ve been asleep during my rambling and haven’t recognized where I’m going with this yet, I’ll ask the question straight up. What if the next generation New Beetle migrated from the ever-growing A-chassis to the smaller and domestically unutilized AO chassis.

A smaller and newer Beetle could serve several purposes.

From a performance standpoint, it would be based on a newer and smaller chassis that, with the right suspension tuning, would make it considerably more agile than the current New Beetle, which itself is no slouch.

The smaller and lighter application would not only help handling performance, but also fuel mileage. A newer AO-based Beetle could be Volkswagen’s fuel economy performance leader as well, especially fitted with a TDI.

In answering the question, “How does one redesign the New Beetle?”, transferal to the AO platform brings forth a natural progression that could even harken back to Concept 1, allowing designers to bring back some of the show-car’s more aggressive dimensions and even more bold design.

Finally, this Newer Beetle would also round out the bottom of the North American Volkswagen lineup. Positioned below the Golf, basic models of the car would be a chic alternative to other small compact offerings. Higher spec models could do like the MINI Cooper S, bringing in higher margin for the bean counters and higher spec for the demanding city-dweller.

Okay, in all reality Volkswagen won’t be redesigning the New Beetle anytime soon. While the seeming eternal life that Jens Neumann seems to allude to may not happen, the New Beetle will probably soldier on without many changes for the foreseeable future. So for the bean-counters at Volkswagen I propose this. Factor it into the next generation Polo. And while you’re at it, why not consider an AO based Micro Microbus to go with your New New Beetle.


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