From the Armchair: Suggesting a Nostalgia Shift from Bugs to Bunny

Nostalgia plays are a tough move. Ford does it with the Mustang, MINI does it with the… well… MINI, and Volkswagen does it with the Beetle. While not the boom segment it was during the era of the PT Cruiser or Ford Thunderbird, the nostalgia segment has been weened to mainly sustainable icon-inspired models. Even still, it’s my theory that these models eventually age themselves out of relevance with their target market. When most anyone who has fond memories of your car retire and begin to stop driving, this will create a problem. No doubt this question has been mulled over by product planners at each of these brands, and finding the answer likely presents a challenge for all.

I’ll admit, I’m in my early 40s. I was born in the 70s and even for me the Beetle is a bit hard to identify with. The Beetle heritage and the rest of the air-cooled product range seems so distant now, no doubt something Volkswagen Design considered when they changed the face of the brand from the Beetle-inspired waterfall grille found on the Mk 5 GTI to the water-cooled era’s horizontal plane of air intake added more recently on the Golf Mk 6. Even now in its second generation, the Beetle remains a notable sole exception to the horizontal grille look.

At the same time, there are cars in the market that are very effectively playing a tune you’d expect to come from Volkswagen. Ford’s Fiesta and especially Fiesta ST are winning over a new era of enthusiast buyers here in the USA. The Polo badge, long known as a solid Volkswagen product in Europe, is more recognized stateside as a clothing line by Ralph Lauren. Effectively, it’s got no history here and likely worse has a trademark conflict. Should Volkswagen wish to compete with Fiesta and the like, this presents a problem. While the Volkswagen Group is aces at cashing in on historic value, it is less so in cases like the SEAT brand where there is less heritage from which to tap.

That’s unfortunate because the Polo represents an interesting niche. On the low end it could compete with the Fiesta, and on the high end with the MINI or the Fiat 500. Unfortunately, the Polo has got neither the wildly futuristic design of the Ford nor the iconic heritage from which to draw as does the MINI or the Fiat. Even still, by the time it migrates to the MQB architecture in the next generation, it will otherwise be well-suited to filling the gap as the small city car that the Volkswagen brand could use.

One option here might be moving the Beetle down in size. The original Concept 1 show car that first experimented with the bug’s return and ushered in the nostalgia car boom was actually Polo-based. That car only moved to the Golf platform when it was being prepped for series production. Pondering this history, I began thinking about other product in the Volkswagen range that registers in my nostalgia era.

Built Volkswagen Rabbit at Waterfest 2015

 

Maybe it hit me when walking around at shows like Waterfest or Mk 1 Madness. As the in-house editor covering Audi for Fourtitude, I’m always amazed and a little bit jealous at the number of truly impressive and often high dollar builds of Mk 1 Rabbits. There is no shortage of love for these cars, these style icons. Their simplicity, fantastic proportions and compact size make them the darling of a generation that grew up in the 1980s when muscle cars were anemic and domestics have fallen apart or rusted away.

A few years ago, Volkswagen of America pitched Wolfsburg on the idea of bringing back the Rabbit. The idea was simple. Sales during the first Rabbit era, effectively that of the Mk1 Golf, were off the charts. No generation of Golf, essentially everything from Mk2 forward, has ever been able to recapture that volume. A Volkswagen of America marketing executive pitched that the Golf be re-christened the Rabbit for America around the introduction of the Mk5 generation. When that strategy proved to be not terribly effective, Germany went back to calling the car by its world name. Fair enough. I think most enthusiasts agreed a Golf is better off a Golf.

All that being said, the Rabbit was as iconic here in the USA as the Golf Mk1 was in Europe. It was a solid little city car and it was our first GTI. So then, why not re-introduce it for what it was. Why not make the icon/heritage play for that next generation of buyers on the next-generation Polo, but with a more stylized and less conservative design that embraces the simplicity of that first-generation car as readily as the current Beetle and New Beetle did the original air-cooled bug?

 Rabbit GTI Proposal (render by VWVortex)

When you think about it, it’s the perfect storm. The Beetle is waning as the generation that loved it also ages. The Polo presents a challenge for America to be sure, but a Rabbit wouldn’t. It might even work well in Europe where the Golf has grown though a buyer still exists for a dynamic little city car that is also a legitimate genetic heir to the Golf Mk1 and that earliest GTI.

Further, Volkswagen could capitalize upon its investment in the ItalDesign / Giugiaro design house and task it with designing this new Mk1-inspired car. Given Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the first car, it seems there’d likely be no better firm to design the second. Stylish “Design by Giugiaro” badges could adorn the car and emphasize its heritage as well as its exotic fusion design of Germanic simplicity with Italian flare.

I could imagine any number of levels of product off of this new generation Mk1-inspired Rabbit – 3-door, 5-door, GTI, Cabriolet complete with roll-hoop… maybe even a Rabbit R. Can you imagine such a Rabbit in RallyCross events, or even in the WRC?

Worth noting, our mockup above is just that. I took several Volkswagen design drawings including one of an Up! GT and added key cues like single round headlights, GTI mesh grille, red accents and a badge. I’ve no doubt it could and would be done better were it crafted by the skilled hands at Giugiaro or by Volkswagen Design.

So what do you think? Should VW consider switching out their nostalgia offering from the Beetle to a bunny?