The Volkswagen Beetle: Praise for the Underdog

I don’t know if it’s just an American-thing, but we love a great underdog story. Ask your friends what their favorite movies or books are and I bet most center on plucky characters that triumph over all the odds. Rudy, Friday Night Lights, Herbie The Love Bug, A League of Their Own, and even freaking Star Wars are all underdog stories. They make for a great story. And the modern Volkswagen Beetle is a real-life underdog: a quirky little car that somehow comes out on top.

By all standards, the Beetle shouldn’t have been successful. I’m not going to go into the history of the original Beetle; there are sites, books, and Wikipedia entries that will tell you all about that. But for those of us old enough to remember the 1980s we remember seeing aircooled Bugs in neighbor’s driveways, in every parking lot, and on highways across the entire United States. We emerged from the backseats of station wagons with black-and-blue marks from a healthy game of “Punch Buggy” (or “Slug Bug” depending on where you’re from). These cars were everywhere. And then…they weren’t. They seemed to just disappear.

Birth of a New Beetle

Volkswagen had a number of successes in the 80s like the MK1 and MK2 GTI, the Jetta, and even the Cabriolet. But in the 90s, faced with an aging product lineup, their sales tanked. In 1994 Volkswagen premiered the Concept 1 show car and the world went nuts. The public loved it. A case was made to produce an all-new Beetle, and in early 1998 the Volkswagen New Beetle premiered at the Detroit Auto Show.

The response was unlike anything Volkswagen had experienced in the United States. The cars were mobbed at the show: people waited in long lines to sit in them, some tried to buy them right from the show floor. Dealerships started taking deposits that week. Three friends and I drove to snowy Detroit from snowy Cleveland just to see the cars. The energy and excitement in the VW display was electric. Volkswagen ran out of brochures. It was unlike any other car show I’ve ever been to.

You see, there just wasn’t anything like the New Beetle when it debuted. The automotive landscape in the late 90s was not at all fun. With a few exceptions, cars of the era were bland and boring. The New Beetle was exciting: the opposite of bland and boring. And it disrupted the industry; competitors scrambled to bring their own retro models to market. Without the New Beetle, there would have been no PT Cruiser, no retro Thunderbird, no MINI, heck, even the newer Camaro may owe some gratitude to the New Beetle. this car was truly a game changer; for the industry and for Volkswagen.

And the thing is, the New Beetle probably shouldn’t have been built. Its history is more than a bit sketchy with ties to the Third Reich. It reminded a number of executives of a very difficult time in Germany’s history, and frankly, it probably felt like a step back to a company trying to move forward. As a product, the New Beetle was small, it was a bit pricey, and it had a tiny trunk. It was no longer rear engined, rear wheel drive, or simple and basic. It was a Golf in a much less practical body. I have to imagine more than one executive thought this modern bug would make the company the laughing stock of the world.

But just like any good underdog story, the odd little car wins out. Dealers couldn’t keep the Bugs in stock. Truckloads of New Beetles would sell out in minutes. Buyers came in to look at the round little car and drove off in a Passat or Jetta. Owners became celebrities: some had business cards printed that answered most questions to hand out to passers-by.

Not only did the New Beetle sell in droves, it racked up some pretty nice awards. It was Motor Trend’s 1999 Import Car of the Year. Automobile Magazine named it their Automobile of the Year in 1999. It even won numerous awards for the car’s design including the prestigious “Design of the Century” award from the Industrial Designers of America (IDSA). And Volkswagen sold a ton of New Beetles. In fact, up to 2007, the New Beetle outsold the Golf every year.

All is not rosy with the New Beetle. Much like other MKIV models, early New Beetles had some quality issues; window regulators failed, strange electrical issues occurred, and headlight bulbs burned out quickly. But New Beetle owners were a passionate bunch and were quick to help out other owners. Get-togethers and caravans to silly places popped up across the nation. And a giant New Beetle weekend was held annually in Roswell New Mexico near Area 51 (a VW commercial claimed the latest Beetle was ‘reverse engineered from UFOs‘).

The MKIV-based New Beetle was in production from 1998 to 2010. There were changes to the car throughout those 12 years; a convertible model in 2003, the Turbo S foreshadowed the future Turbo models, a model facelift arrived in 2005, along with the new 2.5L 5-cylinder engine. But from its sales height of over 83,000 Bugs in 1999, Volkswagen sold only 16,000 in 2010. A new model was needed.

The new (Not “New”) Beetle

In 2011 Volkswagen started teasing the public with a new Beetle. Oprah premiered the silhouette of Beetle when she gave away the not-yet-revealed cars to her audience. Volkswagen used some very expensive commercial time during the Super Bowl when they aired the “Black Betty” commercial (the “High Five” commercial was pretty great too). Execs started mentioning the new Beetle at press conferences as “a car that drivers could take to work during the week and to the track on the weekends.” Enthusiasts new something exciting was coming.

The PQ35 Beetle was a huge improvement over the New Beetle. Gone was the bubble roof, the odd proportions, and the incredibly long dashboard. The 2012 model looked longer, lower, and wider. Many in the media noticed more than a passing resemblance to the Porsche 356 and 911. Our own members praised the good looks of the new car in The Car Lounge. And they weren’t an easy bunch to impress. They still aren’t.

For the first time, the car came in two “flavors:” the 2.5L model with retro flair and the Turbo model with the 2.0T engine. The 2.5 Beetles came standard with slick “Heritage” wheels with interchangeable trim rings, hubcaps, and center caps. Turbo models had 18″ “Twister” wheels that resembled Porsche Fuchs wheels. There were new-for-the-time LED DRLs that added a modern look to the classic shape. Giant panoramic sunroofs were available. And the rear seat and the trunk were substantially larger than the New Beetle. The dashboards and door panels matched the exterior color. Turbo models had faux carbon-fiber and a dashtop gauge pod. There’s even a second glove box in the dash that mimics the ones on the aircooled cars.

One can easily argue that the 2012 Beetle is the most adventurous, playful, and fun car the modern Volkswagen has produced. For a company that creates purposely conservative designs to create something this whimsical is quite extraordinary. I have to believe the designers were fighting over who got to work on this project. And their hard work shows. While it is truly fun, it also a serious car. Turbo models featured bits shared with the MK6 GTI. Engineers had to dial back some of the performance of the Turbo models so as not to step on the GTI’s toes. VW even loaned a series of Beetles to VWVortex to further tune and modify, including the outrageous AWD Super Beetle.

Unfortunately, the Beetle never really took off. At its sales height, VW sold 43,000 Beetles in 2013. It was kind of cursed from the start. The Fukushima earthquake caused a serious delay in key components sourced from Japan including sunroof units, xenon headlights, and the Turbo gauge pods. This left dealers without the most popular trim levels. A design flaw in the window motor’s gearing caused windows to not raise properly, conjuring up images of the regulator problems that plagued the Mk4 cars. Truth be told, the 2012 Beetle arrived too late; 12 years of Mk4 New Beetles were at least four too many.

And Volkswagen never quite worked out good trim levels for the cars. Buyers wanted the most retro-looking cars, but when they optioned them up, the Heritage wheels were replaced by 18″ chrome wheels. Turbo buyers wanted the 2.0T engine, but couldn’t get the Heritage wheels, so they’d buy them used. Later base models had goofy Turbine trim rings covering the Heritage wheels, which extinguished some of the old-school appearance.

While the GTI’s performance improved greatly with the MK7 model, VW never fit the EA888 motor to the Beetle or even upgraded its softer-than-GTI suspension. In my opinion, while they worried the Turbo Beetle (later called R-Line) would infringe on the GTI, they really shouldn’t have been concerned: GTI enthusiasts wouldn’t consider a Beetle, even one with identical performance. They should have equipped them the same. But again, the Beetle has always been the underdog.

Future Beetles?

While all signs point to cancellation, we haven’t seen an official press release. Yet with all the signs, there are some glimmers of hope. Just yesterday, USA Today reported the Beetle may not be dead yet. There’s been chatter around the Beetle returning as an MEB electric model. The rumor of 4-door Bugs and AWD “crossover” models have been around for years. And the MQB “platform” offers exceptional manufacturing flexibility; low-volume models can be produced much more cost-effectively. Like perhaps an MQB Beetle?

Could we see another Beetle? I hold out hope, but only the folks in Wolfsburg know for sure. One thing’s for sure: we love underdogs, even in the automotive world.