Image: Volkswagen Presents New VW Beetle
Andreas Rentz  /  Getty Images
Will American motorists — never mind those in Germany and the rest of Europe — take to the latest generation of the Volkswagen Beetle?
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 8/16/2011 9:30:45 PM ET 2011-08-17T01:30:45

Will American motorists — never mind those in Germany and the rest of Europe — take to the latest generation of the Volkswagen Beetle?

More than seven decades after the launch of the original “people’s car,” an all-new Bug is finally rolling into showrooms — or perhaps that should read the “Newer” Beetle, as VW’s new Bug replaces the so-called New Beetle, which the German automaker launched a decade ago to general indifference in much of the world.

That was especially true in Germany, where motorists saw the retro-mobile as an uncomfortable reminder of the austere days following the end of World War II. It was cheap transportation for a devastated nation looking for more than bicycles, but by the turn of the new Millennium it was no longer chic. In the U.S., meanwhile, the New Beetle developed a strong but short-lived cult. Demand for the car fell rapidly as the round design became derided as a “chick car.”

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With the introduction of the third-generation Beetle, Volkswagen designers have adopted what they describe as “heritage” styling, adopting the extended snout of the original car while giving the 2012 coupe all the creature comforts and safety features buyers of the original Beetle could have only dreamed of.

Designed by the legendary Ferdinand Porsche — who went on to lend his name and talents to the Stuttgart-based sports car company — the Beetle first rolled into showrooms in the days immediately before World War II. Only a small number made it to market before the start of hostilities and once the war ended barely a few survived. One was even found in the rubble of the carmaker’s plant, in Wolfsburg, Germany, by a British military detachment that was charged with helping revive the Teutonic economy.

Ultimately, the design remained in production for 75 years, the last of approximately 21 million Beetles rolling off a VW assembly line in Mexico in 2003.

The iconic design was, by then, outdated and unable to meet increasingly stringent global safety and emissions standards. So VW rolled out the New Beetle, designed by a team led by J Mays, now the chief stylist at Ford. Rounder and more compact than the original, the replacement coupe caught on fast — but burned out just as quickly. Sales in the U.S. peaked at 83,434 in 1999, but by 2009 demand had slumped to just 14,085.

Even at its best, the New Beetle generated sales in the U.S. of barely a quarter the 350,000 the original Beetle saw at its peak. And the car fared even more poorly abroad.

Yet when pressed to simply walk away from the car and concede defeat, VW officials said, “Nein.”

“It is, for us, an iconic part of our history,” explained Rainer Michael, Volkswagen’s vice president of product and marketing.

The challenge was coming up with a new design that could broaden the New Beetle’s appeal — both by drawing more men to the car and by expanding the global market.

Designers carefully examined the original Beetle and took from it the more sporty cues originally penned by Porsche three quarters of a century ago. The 2012 Beetle’s snout is longer, and rather than having a “living room-like cabin,” the new version of the car is “more like sitting in a sports car,” noted Andreas Valbuena, the Beetle program manager.

Indeed, there is a surprising degree of similarity between the reborn Bug — which is lower, longer and wider than the car it replaces — and early versions of the Porsche 911.

Designers have trod cautiously, reviving the car’s classic details, such as the “kaeferbach,” or second glove box, while struggling to avoid being accused of being too retro — a dreaded label in the auto industry these days.

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Beyond its design, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle is decidedly modern, with a full complement of airbags and other state-of-the-art safety features. It is quick, with optional 19-inch wheels that underscore its sporty intentions. And there are any number of creature comforts and convenience features, including a large LCD navigation screen and even a music-blasting audio system developed in cooperation with that icon of American rock-and-roll, Fender.

Valbuena is confident the new model will no longer be dismissed as a “girl’s car,” and the new design certainly drew plenty of stares and positive waves during a circuitous drive through in Berlin recently.

The automotive world has changed dramatically since the original Beetle ruled the road. At one point the car didn’t even have a name (it was marketed as simply the “Volkswagen.”) Today, the brand’s showrooms are filled with an ever-expanding line-up of products. And the Beetle will plunge into a pool filled with competitors’ competent alternatives.

A key to maintaining demand for the Beetle after the initial attraction of the new car wears off will be to steadily roll out new variants, explained Beetle manager Valbuena. A turbo and a convertible package are already in the works and other alternatives will follow, he hinted.

“Something to keep it fresh and new will be following every year,” Valbuena promised.

Can the newest Beetle match the success of the original? That means a 75-year lifespan and 21 million cars — or sales of 350,000 a year — in the U.S.

Not a chance, VW officials quickly concede. In fact, demand will likely lag more mainstream models, such as the Golf, Jetta and Passat, acknowledged Jonathan Browning, head of Volkswagen Group of America.

But VW is betting that the little coupe will provide the sort of iconic face to the brand that few other carmakers have. And that, company officials are betting, will be the Beetle’s biggest contribution going forward.

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Photos: The hatchback makes a comeback

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  1. The hatchback’s comeback

    By Paul A. Eisenstein , contributor

    American motorists are often described as fixed in their ways and unwilling to try new things, yet there are signs that this might not hold true anymore. There are signs car buyers are open to alternative body designs that can enhance both form and functionality, especially as more and more motorists downsize to reduce fuel costs.

    In some cases, that mean old ideas are making a comeback – the hatchback, for example.

    Take Audi's A7.

    After years as an also-ran in the global luxury car market, Audi has been steadily gaining ground on its leading challengers, Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and BMW, as well as Japan’s Lexus – and its reputation for striking design is a major reason.

    The A7 is Audi’s latest hit. It’s a coupe-like sedan or, more accurately, a coupe-like hatchback. Five-door designs are wildly popular in Europe and many other parts of the world but have long been anathema to American motorists. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Ford Fiesta

    While some carmakers are still reluctant to bring hatchback designs to the U.S. market, Ford is betting big on 5-door models like the Fiesta subcompact, shown here, and the new Focus compact.

    Demand for hatchbacks in the U.S. small car segment has surged from 15.5 percent in 2003 to 41.8 percent last year. Overall hatchback sales, meanwhile, shot up 63 percent between 2006 and 2010, to 475,048. (Ford / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chevrolet Corvette

    Would a rose by any other name smell so sweet?

    The Bard’s words might as well be applied to products like the Chevrolet Corvette. Sure, most motorists are likely to call it a sports car, but take a closer look and you’ll realize the ‘Vette has traditionally gone for a hatchback design – as have many of the most popular classic sports cars. (Gm / Wieck) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jeep Grand Cherokee

    What is the SUV if not a hatchback (unless you prefer to call it a station wagon on steroids)? Ironically, it’s the big rear hatch that gives so much flexibility to the conventional sport-utility vehicle, as well as its more fuel-efficient cousin, the crossover vehicle. Count them and hatchback sales suddenly rival those of the sedan. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mini Cooper

    The Mini Cooper is another European take on the hatchback. The iconic small-car brand has shown that both small cars and 3-door designs can click with the American motoring public. Mini will soon offer a total of seven hatch-based designs in the U.S. market. (Mini) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. BMW X6

    BMW’s unusual X6 is a hatchback blend of conventional SUV and sports car. The muscular design has had a significant influence on both luxury and mainstream automakers over the last several years – even though it is more an exercise in form than functionality. (Tom Kirkpatrick / eb.andriuolo/BMW) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Honda Crosstour

    Among those who have echoed the X6 design are Honda and its up-market sibling, Acura.

    The mainstream brand has struggled with the Accord Crosstour and hopes to pump new life into the design by adding more features and simplifying the name to just Honda Crosstour for 2012.

    The Acura ZDX isn’t doing much better in the market and both may not last much beyond the 2012 model-year – which could extend the myth that Americans won’t buy hatchbacks. (Honda) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ford Pinto

    The Ford Pinto is one reason why hatchbacks lost their luster in the U.S. market. The once-popular subcompact was a mainstay of the 1970s but, like so many hatchbacks of the era, it offered little in the way of creature comforts and other amenities. Making matters worse was the Pinto’s flawed gas tank design, associated with a number of deadly fires. (Ford / Wieck) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Chevrolet Vega

    The Chevrolet Vega was another reason why hatchbacks lost their appeal in the U.S.

    Though stylish in its day, the relatively stripped-down Chevy experienced a variety of quality and reliability problems that hurt the image of both parent General Motors and of the hatchback itself. Once one of the most popular body styles, demand for 3- and 5-door models slipped to barely 1 percent of total U.S. sales by the middle of the last decade. (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. AMC Gremlin

    Few carmakers were more committed to the hatchback than American Motors.

    It offered a wide variety of alternatives -- especially considering the size of the company. The Gremlin, shown here, was among its most popular hatch models, along with the Alliance, marketed under the brand of one-time French ally Renault.

    But one of the most curious AMC offerings was the Pacer, originally designed to use the radical Wankel rotary, though converted to a conventional engine due to quality and mileage problems with the rotary. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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