In its latest reinvention, its third – all the cartoon aspects of the previous VW have been replaced
Sunday 24 July 2011
Ah, the joy of being instrumental in history's reinvention.
This particular reinvention involves creating new versions of old automotive favourites, reinterpreting the visual vibe while bringing the driving qualities up to modern standards.
Obvious examples? The Mini. The Fiat 500. And the Volkswagen Beetle which, with the launch of the car you see here now, has the unique honour of having been resurrected twice. There is a link between two of these cars that the marketing departments might not want to trumpet, which is a charismatic Italian marketing guru called Luca de Meo. He rose quickly within Fiat, and was a prime mover in bringing the Trepiuno concept car to production as the now very familiar Fiat 500. "My mother said we had to build it," he said at the time, "so we did."
Since 2009, Mr De Meo has had a new life at Volkswagen. As marketing director, he has been right behind the Beetle's second rebirth. "This time my father said we must do it," he replies, when the coincidence is pointed out.
Last time the near-sacred Beetle was redrawn, its profile was reduced to three intersecting semicircles and it became a cartoon car, complete with the flower vase that US original Beetles, if not UK ones, often wore. Thirteen years on, the proportions are closer to the original's, with the roof section set further back, the windscreen more upright and the bonnet longer.
That said, the new Beetle vibe is meant to be one of nascent machismo and a sporty drive, so the shape is flattened and the vase has gone. With the way the rear roof pillars now meet the waistline behind the rear wheels' centres, there's even a hint of Porsche 911 here.
Sporting motoring is not something we in the UK historically associate with a Beetle, but the US used to have a very strong Beetle-tuning culture. The US will be the biggest market for the new car, which is one reason why it is made in Mexico – as was the previous one, and indeed the rear-engined original right up to 2003. This also helps to keep the price down, so the Beetle is cheaper than a same-engined Golf.
Inside, hard plastics abound but, as in a Fiat 500, this sits well with the functional approach inherited from the original car. The dashboard's centre section is inspired by that of a mid-1950s Beetle but it's unlikely that most buyers will spot that. They might notice the Fender badging (as in guitars) on the optional top-end sound system, though. The system sounds terrific.
The way the body tapers towards the rear makes for a cosy rear seat, but there's a lot of room in the front. There's a lot of entertainment potential for the driver, too, because the new Beetle – at least in the top 2.0 TSI guise I sampled – is a thoroughly good drive. Its 200bhp engine is a slightly detuned version of a Golf GTI's, with plentiful accelerative punch and a racy note. My test car had a six-speed, double-clutch gearbox with paddle-shifters on the steering wheel, and it worked well. I'd prefer the manual alternative.
Under its retro-modern skin the Beetle is more or less a Golf, or, more accurately, a Jetta. The marketing people thought the 2.0 TSI would have more credibility with car enthusiasts if it used the Golf's four-link suspension, and certainly this Beetle steers and handles very nicely. It feels poised, precise and in tune with the driver in a way the previous cartoon Beetle was not, and on standard suspension it also soaks up bumps adequately.
Current thinking at the UK importer is that the 2.0 TSI will come only with Sport suspension when it lands in a year's time. The other models are a 1.2 TSI petrol, a 1.6 TDI diesel and a 1.4 TSI with a turbo and supercharger. The last, on standard suspension, may prove to be the pick of the range.
What is clear, though, is that the new Beetle is a more "serious", more credible car than the previous one. Could it reignite the Beetle cult? I do believe it could.
Citroën DS3 DSport THP 150: from £16,610, 156bhp, 155g/km
"Anti-retro" DS3 (despite famous DS initials) is good value, nicely finished, looks good and is great fun.
Mini Cooper S: from £18,010, 184bhp, 139g/km
Seems big for a car called Mini but keeps the original's cheeky agility. Fast, feisty, entertaining, and Efficient Dynamics keeps CO2 low.
Volkswagen Golf GTI: from £25,060, 211bhp, 170g/km
Like a Beetle underneath but in normal clothes. Slightly faster and more frugal, still a benchmark hot hatchback.
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