Image: New VW Beetle
Michael Sohn  /  AP
The new VW Beetle is shown during a news conference in Berlin Monday. In its 73-year history the car has evolved from the hippie ride of choice to a cute chick car. Now Volkswagen is reinventing it again, but how much life is left in the Volkswagen Beetle?
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/19/2011 2:32:42 PM ET 2011-04-19T18:32:42

It’s one of the best known (and best-selling) automotive brand names in history. But how much life is left in the old Volkswagen Beetle?

That’s the new Beetle, the vehicle that’s getting a global roll-out this week at both the New York and Shanghai auto shows.

The 2012 version of the Beetle is only the second complete remake of the original “people’s car” since it was first launched 73 years ago. In an industry where new is almost always better for most buyers, the original Beetle was a surprisingly successful anachronism for six decades. But the “New Beetle,” launched in 1998, had nowhere near the staying power.

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After much internal debate over whether to even keep the Beetle alive, Volkswagen decided that it was not just another model in a steadily expanding line-up, but rather it was “a part of the heartbeat of the organization,” explained Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America.

The 1998 Beetle remake was a much-needed success for Volkswagen — at least initially. If anything, it strained the company’s resources, both on the manufacturing and marketing side. But the success was relatively short-lived. And the car soon saw demand plunge, especially outside the U.S. market. In Germany it was barely visible on the sales charts.

It was also a polarizing product, especially when considered by gender, appealing to a broad group of women, but leaving most men cold.

So when the decision was made to re-do the people’s car, Volkswagen brand design director Klaus Bischoff knew he had some serious challenges to overcome.

“I didn’t want to lose this beloved icon for the brand,” said Bischoff, in an interview following the introduction of the newest Beetle Monday. “It was clear for us designers that we didn’t want to follow the path of the [1998] New Beetle. That game was over.”

Though there were clear similarities between the 1998 remake and the 1938 original, the so-called New Beetle adopted a design that was little more than a series of overlapping semi-circles. The new model returns to the basic dimensions of the first Beetle, with a pronounced snout and a more upright windshield, as well as the large, round headlamps.

There are a variety of details — such as the bigger wheels and the built-in rear wing — that give the 2012 Beetle a more macho, sporty feel that Bischoff’s team felt would expand the car’s appeal to men — and so will the layout of the interior, he contends.

The 1998 Beetle design created a sort of microvan space, with plenty of room in front of the driver. The 2012 Beetle has more of a cockpit-like feel, closer to the original Beetle — as well as the classic Porsche 911, which traces its roots to the same source, the German car legend Ferdinand Porsche.

But the new Beetle is anything but claustrophobic. It is wider and a full six inches longer than the 1998 design, yielding significantly more passenger and cargo space.

Volkswagen not only hopes to increase the next Beetle’s appeal to men, but also to expand its reach beyond U.S. shores. Nonetheless, succeeding here in the U.S. would be a very important start, the company’s design chief said, noting that “the American customer influences all customers worldwide. Setting a trend here will set a trend everywhere.”

Scoring a hit would be great news for the increasingly aggressive Volkswagen, which plans to roughly double its current U.S. sales to 800,000 a year by 2016. That would finally permit it to break through the seemingly impenetrable peak set by the original Beetle four decades ago.

The German automaker also has set an unabashed goal of dethroning current global automotive king-of-the-hill Toyota by 2016. And, said Browning, the Beetle would be crucial in achieving that target, as well, by reviving the VW brand’s identifying icon.

Story: Ladies and gentlemen, the (new) Volkswagen Beetle

The executive wouldn’t discuss a sales target for the third-generation Beetle, though he hinted it will be “somewhere between” the brand’s best-selling Jetta line, which generates about 100,000 sales annually, and the EOS convertible, a niche model pulling in volumes of under 20,000 per year.

“It’s an iconic model that was long overdue for a change,” said Dave Sullivan, automotive analyst with the consulting firm, AutoPacific, Inc. “There’s a definite market” for the Beetle, but it will have to overcome the objections that wore down demand for the old model, he cautioned.

Just don’t expect to see it generate anywhere near the sales of the original. During more than six decades on the market, the Beetle became one of the most popular automotive products in history, ultimately selling over 20 million vehicles in car markets from Berlin to Mexico City.

However, the 1998-generation Beetle hasn’t even managed a tenth of that volume, with sales of the vehicle so far totaling 477,000.

While the 2012 model might have a retro-tinged design, VW hopes to follow a very modern marketing strategy, which will include the steady roll-out of Beetle variants, including a turbo and, later, a convertible.

While the third-generation coupe likely won’t be around for six decades, VW does hope it can maintain its drawing power for quite some time.

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Explainer: What’s old is new again: Muscle is back

  • GM  /  Wieck

    What’s old is new again.

    The year 1969 seems to be in the air in Detroit these days, as crosstown rivals Ford and Chevrolet have revived respected high-performance versions of their popular pony cars that originally debuted the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

    There are other revival cars out there too, though they may have been here for a couple years already.

    Here’s a look at the old and new versions of Detroit’s well-loved muscle cars.

  • OLD: 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford

    In the late 1960s Ford sought to shore up the Mustang against its rivals in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan racing series, known as Trans-Am. The result was the Boss 302, a model sold in 1969 and 1970 for the sole purpose of bringing a high-powered, sharp-handling Mustang to showrooms that could win on the racetrack. Stiff springs, adjustable shocks, fatter tires and a high-revving engine delivered the goods. Ford sold 8,641 Boss 302 Mustangs during the two years it was produced, making it one of the most collectable versions of the car. Advertised horsepower was 290 hp, with the 302 cubic inch (5.0-liter in modern terminology) backed by a four-speed manual transmission.

  • NEW: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Today’s Boss 302 was built with a new mission: defeat the fearsome BMW M3 on the racetrack. Ford execs vowed to approve the project only if the resulting Mustang could lap circuits like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca faster than the Bavarian rival.

    As they had 42 years earlier, Ford engineers braced the chassis, stiffened the springs and reworked the engine to rev faster than ever. The new 302 V8 is rated at 444 hp. And again the result is a stunningly fast car considering some of the proletarian underpinnings, such as the solid rear axle.

    A test driver for Motor Trend magazine posted a Laguna Seca lap time in the car that was a slim 0.01 seconds slower than that of the exotic Audi R8 V10 by rival Road & Track magazine. The Boss is faster than the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 4.2 (the V8 version of the car), Chevrolet Corvette Z06, BMW M3 and Porsche Cayman S.

  • OLD: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM

    Ford wasn’t the only one with a track-centric pony car that debuted in 1969. Chevrolet rolled out the Camaro ZL1 the same year.

    This car was more the result of ingenuity than planned intent. Unlike the Boss, the ZL1 wasn’t designed by anyone to do anything. Instead, it was the result of a creative Illinois Chevrolet dealer who ordered 50 Camaros equipped with the company’s aluminum block 427 cubic-inch racing engine code-named ZL1.

    A few other dealers caught on to the idea and 69 of the cars were built with then engine which was officially rated at 430 horsepower, but which was tested to produce more than 500 hp.

    The $4,200 racing engine doubled the price of the Camaro, so they weren’t terribly popular with regular customers, but drag racers appreciated the car’s ability to rocket down the strip in just 11 seconds.

  • NEW: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM  /  Wieck

    The new Camaro ZL1 will hit showrooms early next year, and like the new Boss 302, it packs even more power than the original, even taking the fudge factor on the old car’s rating into account.

    The 2012 Camaro ZL1 uses a supercharger to produce at least 550 hp (the official number hasn’t been finalized yet). The 6.2-liter V8 and six-speed manual transmission are similar to those seen on the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V, and the adjustable magnetic ride shock absorber technology also carries over from the Corvette.

    The result is the most technologically advanced Camaro ever, and while the company hasn’t announced a specific performance target, it is safe to assume that Chevy’s engineering team would very much like to unseat the Boss 302’s lap times at the track.

  • OLD: 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM

    In the early 1960s, American car makers had agreed not to officially back racing with “factory” teams. But the companies had customers who still wanted to race their cars, and so they wanted for those teams to win.

    Sports car racing teams wanted the fastest possible Corvette to challenge Ferrari and Carroll Sheby’s Cobras, and Chevrolet obliged by offering Regular Production Option code Z06 for the Corvette. Checking that option on the ‘Vette’s order sheet caused the factory to install a 360-hp 327 cubic-inch V8, M21 four-speed manual transmission, stiffer springs, shocks and swaybars, racing-grade drum brakes (the Corvette didn’t yet have disc brakes), aluminum wheels and a huge 36.5-gallon gas tank for endurance races.

    At $5,975, Chevy found just 199 customers for the Z06 in 1963.

  • NEW: 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM  /  Wieck

    By 2001, Chevrolet was ready to roll out a higher-performing version of the Corvette to defend the car’s reputation against the Dodge Viper, which had claimed the performance high ground. The company reached into its archives and dusted off the Z06 moniker. That meant the usual steps of installing a more powerful engine and stiffening the suspension to upgrade track performance, while leaving the base model with its softer springs and available automatic transmission for the boulevard cruisers.

    Today Chevrolet still offers the Corvette Z06, though its position as the pinnacle of Corvette performance has since been superseded by the supercharged Corvette ZR1. So the 2011 Z06 is the top-performing normally aspirated Corvette model, with a 427 cubic-inch V8 (7.0-liters) cranking out 505 hp, propelling the car to a top speed of 198 mph. Widespread use of lightweight carbon fiber and magnesium whittles the Z06’s mass to 3,175 lbs. a total that is unheard-of among today’s crop of porky performance models. If that’s not enough, an available performance package brings the wheels, tires, shocks and brakes from the ZR1 for maximum handling and braking.

  • OLD: 1968 Dodge Charger R/T

    Dodge

    Dodge debuted the fastback-styled intermediate-sized Charger in 1966, using a design originally planned for Chrysler’s turbine car, which did not reach production. But a refreshed design in 1968 tripled Charger sales, and along with the new sheetmetal came a new high-performance option, the R/T, which stood for Road/Track.

    The R/T’s base engine was the 375-hp 440 Magnum, but the optional 425-hp 426 Hemi with two four-barrel carburetors was the legendary pinnacle of the line, with a top speed of 156 mph, according to a test of the car by Car and Driver magazine.

    With modest changes the following year, the 1969 Charger gained later fame in garish citric paint as the street-going racecar “General Lee” on the popular weekly 1980s television drama “The Dukes of Hazard.”

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T

    OWEN  /  Dodge

    To the widespread dismay of enthusiasts, when the Dodge Charger returned to the company’s lineup, it was not as a swoopy coupe, but as a pug-faced four-door sedan. Dodge assuaged the ruffled feathers with an R/T model meant to confirm the Charger’s faithfulness to the original in terms of performance, if not appearance.

    For 2011 the Charger R/T is powered by a 370-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that, in a nod to modern realities, switches to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all those horses aren’t needed. Another modern reality is customer disinterest in manual transmissions, so in a divergence from the original as shocking as the new car’s blocky styling, there is no manual transmission available.

    But there is all-wheel-drive, giving snow-plagued drivers their first realistic opportunity to own a normally rear-drive American muscle car as a year-round daily driver. And for those who feel today’s R/T is lacking in power compared to the original, there is always the 425-hp 6.1-liter SRT8 version.

  • OLD: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Dodge

    The midsized Charger was a good muscle car, but was too big to be a natural competitor to Ford and Chevy’s Mustang and Camaro “pony” cars, so in 1970 Dodge launched the smaller Challenger to take them on. As with the Charger, an R/T high-performance model led the way.

    In addition to the Charger R/T’s two engines the 1970 Challenger added a third option: a 390-hp version of the 440 Magnum engine topped by three two-barrel carburetors in place of the single four-barrel on the 375-hp engine.

    The Challenger survived in this form only until 1974, but its legend was strong enough to spawn a new Challenger modeled after the original in 2008.

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Bill Delaney  /  Dodge

    The 2011 Challenger R/T is a stirring tribute to the original car, mimicking its styling cues. Gearheads will appreciate that Dodge stuck to the original’s attitude in making a six-speed manual transmission available to go with the 376-hp 6.2-liter Hemi V8 engine, though there is also an automatic transmission available.

    Even with the ability to rocket to 60 mph from a standstill in less than six seconds, the Hemi-powered Challenger scores 25 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test thanks to cylinder deactivation technology that lets it cruise on four cylinders.

    But if passing competitors is more important than passing gas pumps, a new top-of-the-line Challenger SRT8 392 Hemi edition offers a stunning 470 hp that brings 60 mph on the speedometer in less than five seconds.

Video: 2012’s hottest cars

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