Motoring: Herbie rides again

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The Independent Online
A rebodied Volkswagen Golf, with no rear headroom and a tiny boot, is the most talked about car of 1998. Gavin Green takes the New Beetle for a spin

It was front-page lead of USA Today when it was unveiled at the recent Detroit Show and got a cover strap on Newsweek. It was on the telly around the world and, if Volkswagen's publicists are to be believed, it has raised more interest in dealerships than any car they've ever launched.

I believe it. I've just driven one in America, and wherever you take the New Beetle people just stare and smile and wave, and come over all friendly and cuddly. Truck drivers gawk, kids wave, other drivers slow down and speed up to try to weigh up the look of the new car. Stop at the traffic lights and you're surrounded. Has there ever been a car that's created more street interest? I doubt it.

It's especially the middle-aged folk, who owned an old Beetle and associate them with a different sort of trip from the A to B variety, who come over to say "Hi". People remember owning Bugs, in a way that Escorts and Cavaliers and Corollas just come and go unnoticed. Bugs tended to be part of the family, whereas most cars are just transport. They also defined a whole decade. They were part of the Sixties, just like the other Beatles, icons of the most free and optimistic 10 years this century.

The New Beetle was conceived almost by accident. In VW's far-flung Californian styling studio, J Mays, the studio head, was working on a pet project - a Beetle-like concept car. Initially, the Germans knew nothing about it. Concept One - the "new Beetle" - was the result. It was shown at the 1994 Detroit Show, with VW's then technical chief insisting it would never go into production. Whereas all other Volkswagens are dour if shapely, Concept One was fun and friendly. People loved it.

And they love it as I drive around Georgia. Young, old, men, women, people who are bored with modern car architecture and its infatuation with amorphous organic shapes or with "aggressive" design. The New Beetle looks friendly and approachable and different, and that's why people love it. Plus, people always like nostalgia. Millions owned one, and remember the Beetle. And if they didn't own one, they watched it on the screen as Herbie, the car that was almost human. That rather summed up the Beetle.

The new one has the Beetle- esque shape, but shares nothing with its ancestor. It's pure Golf mechanically - the engine, the suspension, the brakes. There's a 2-litre petrol and a 1.9 turbodiesel model, both front - not rear - mounted.

Behind the wheel, you're aware of being close to your passenger, just as you were in the old Beetle, an upshot of those fake stylised running boards which have dictated a narrower than normal cabin. Yet the windscreen seems miles away. That semi- circular Bug shape has demanded a screen that ends far forward, and vast dashboard depth. Yet it also makes for a rear compartment with virtually no headroom, and a tiny and useless boot - although the rear seat does fold forward, helping storage space. The Yanks say that most Bugs will carry no more than two adults or, at most, two adults and two kids.

Performance is lively, even if the mechanical noises are coming from the wrong end of the car. A standard sports exhaust helps give the exhaust extra timbre, but the New Beetle does not feel like an especially sporty car. It is not meant to. It is an unthreatening car, not a traffic-light tearaway. It is aimed at those who aren't in a hurry.

Build quality seems excellent, a testament to the recently overhauled (and once quality-suspect) Puebla factory in Mexico. There were no rattles and both interior and exterior finish were first rate. The gearchange is smooth and easy (just like a Golf's), and the car handles well. It rides well, too, and is comfortable to sit in, even if there's no sign of the bonnet, which falls out of sight. Rear three-quarter visibility is also poor, although this will come as no shock to those used to Golfs. Modern safety features abound, and include dash and side airbags. Anti- lock brakes are optional.

The pleasingly individual dash complements the oddball exterior styling. There's a vast circular speedo right in front, with inset tachometer and fuel level gauges. There is even a little plastic vase on the dash, to hold the ubiquitous flower, although this is probably a retro touch too far.

In fact, the whole thing is a big sop to sentimentality. This car makes no sense, not in a rational way. If you want a car this size for normal, sensible transport, you'd be better off buying a Golf, which also happens to be cheaper. In Britain, the New Beetle will cost about pounds 14,000 when sales start early in 1999. A turbocharged 1.8 litre petrol model will also have joined the range by then.

Instead, the Beetle is much more than just a car. It's as much a fashion accessory as transport; more lifestyle statement than mechanical object on wheels. It will sell because of the way it looks, and the image it conveys, and will be a popular second or third car for those who want something a little different.

It may just be a rebodied, overpriced, PR-hyped Golf in drag, but it's fine to look at and drive. And other motorists will love you for driving it. Road rage and road anger are unlikely to be problems for New Age Bug drivers. Besides, if other drivers do lose their rag, you can always give them a flower.