Motoring: Beetles top the Motown charts

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Detroit Motor Show is usually treated as a fanfare for America's motoring giants. This year, however, Uncle Sam was upstaged by VW's reborn Beetle, as Gavin Green reports.

Volkswagen's New Beetle, successor to the only good thing that came out of Germany in the Thirties, finally made its public debut at this week's Detroit Motor Show, after four years of hype.

Visually similar but mechanically miles apart from the original Beetle - conceived by Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche as a "people's car" - the New Beetle is a VW-Golf-based "designer" car aimed at those who want to cut a dash, while also conveying a friendly, smiling image. VW describes the new car as "optimism on wheels" and it will be marketed as a cute lifestyle accessory for those who want some emotion in their transport.

This is just as well, for, although it's a cheerful little thing and will no doubt sell well, it has little practical virtue. The Beetle-like styling, with the fall-away rear, gives virtually no rear headroom for adults, and a tiny boot. The price will be slightly higher than that of a similarly sized Golf, further reducing the reasons to buy it. In the UK, where sales start early next year, prices will start from about pounds 14,000 - a lot, for a piece of cute automotive jewellery. Even Volkswagen admits the car is all about style rather than function - unlike the original Beetle, which was designed to motorise Germany. It at least shows that VW, Germany's dourest, most utilitarian car maker, has at last developed a sense of humour.

The new Beetle looks almost identical with the "Concept One" design study, styled in VW's California studio, that was first shown at the Detroit Show four years ago. Since then, the Concept One has toured the world motor show circuit, to drum up publicity for the New Beetle. Once the green light was given, development shifted from California to Germany.

Concept One creator J Mays, former head of VW's Californian studio, was given no credit for the car at either the Detroit press conference or in subsequent interviews with VW high-ups. This is because he no longer works for the VW group. Three months ago he took up the top design job at Ford. Ford also kept him under wraps at the Detroit Show, lest he end up talking more about a new Volkswagen than upcoming new Fords.

The New Beetle shares no parts with the old Beetle. It doesn't even have that car's most famous mechanical feature, a rear engine. Instead, the two engines on offer - a 2.0-litre 115bhp four and a 1.9-litre 90bhp turbo- diesel - are both front-mounted and drive the front wheels. A 150bhp V5 engine will go on sale later. Most other mechanical parts, including the suspension, steering, brakes and transmissions, are also Golf-based. This has greatly reduced VW's development costs.

The car has been created largely for the American market, where Volkswagen sales have plummeted since the halcyon days of the original Beetle. Back in the late Sixties, VW was selling half a million cars a year in North America, almost all of them Beetles. Last year, it sold 150,000 cars.

The New Beetle certainly won't send VW sales rocketing back to the level of 30 years ago. VW expects to sell 50,000 a year in North America, and the same again in the rest of the world.

All New Beetles will be made at VW's Mexican factory in Puebla, which already sources US-bound Golfs and Jettas. The factory, once noted for its dodgy build quality, has been completely overhauled to ensure that New Beetle reliability will be at least as good as that of the old Beetle.

One firm link with the past is that New Beetle production will run alongside that of the old. Mexico is now the only country to continue to build the old timer, for the Mexican and South American markets; it is still the biggest-selling car in history.

The New Beetle was undoubtedly the focus of Detroit, but the Yanks did at least have the odd home-grown product to cheer about. Most impressive new production car - rather more impressive than the Beetle, in fact - was the Ford Cougar, a Mondeo-based coupe that goes on sale in Europe this summer. It's a sharp, handsome machine, looking rather like a big brother to the Ford Puma coupe, and offers a choice of 2.0-litre four or 2.5-litre V6 engines. Prices start at pounds 18,000. The V6 will cost about pounds 21,000. The US-made Cougar replaces the slow-selling, absurdly named Ford Probe.

Lexus, Toyota's upmarket wing, unveiled its Range Rover rival, a 4x4 that is probably the most car-like off-roader we've ever seen, and is bound further to erode Land Rover's one-time dominance of the top-end 4x4 market. Honda unveiled a replacement for its Shuttle MPV, Saab has face-lifted the 900 and changed the name to 9-3, and the Yanks had the usual sprinkling of new, gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and huge off-roaders, while making a lot of noise about their research into the eco-friendly cars of the future.

Detroit is traditionally about brave-looking, albeit often irrelevant, "concept" cars, and Chrysler traditionally provides the lion's share of the entertainment. This year it had three concept vehicles. The most interesting was a cross between an open sports car and a 4x4: the Jeepster. The adjustable suspension raises the car to clear rocks and verges. Otherwise, it's a chunky ground-hugger with huge tyres. It may go into production.

So may a Porsche Boxster-lookalike, mid-engined, plastic-bodied roadster - the Plymouth Pronto Spyder - which would be sold for half the price of the Porsche.

There was also a vast saloon called the Chrysler Chronos. It has a huge body, a tiny cockpit, and as much street presence as a road-going ocean liner. It looks fabulous, an old-fashioned, ostentatious Yank that oozes money and power. It makes no sense at all.

But then, neither does the New Beetle. And that won't stop thousands of people, more interested in image than functionality, racing to their local VW dealer to put down a deposit.