The Volkswagen Beetle Rides Again

Much loved Volkswagen Beetle is Redesigned for a New Century

Volkswagen introduced its all-new Beetle design in New York today. It is only the third version of the car originally commissioned by Adolph Hitler almost 90 years ago to be Germany's answer to Ford's Model-T and a tool to cement allegiance from working class Germans.

Despite its sinister beginnings, the Beetle became one of the most enduring automotive icons of the last century, as well as arguably the most "loved" car in America. Volkswagen is again looking to the Beetle to stir up emotions and sales, and lead Americans back into VW showrooms as the company pushes to be one of the most dominant import makes in the U.S. in the company of Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

"The U.S. is the most important market for Beetle, and it is a critical part of the new chapter we are trying to write for Volkswagen in the U.S. and worldwide," said Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen of America.

The 2012 Beetle is bigger than both its predecessors. In fact, it's more than three inches wider and six inches longer than the previous New Beetle. It is also slightly lower to the ground. Under the hood, the standard engine is a 2.5 liter, producing 200 horsepower, with turbo-charged 2.0 liter gas and diesel engines offered as well. The New Beetle TDI (diesel) is expected to get 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway, with a combined fuel economy of 33 mpg. Both an automatic and manual transmission will be offered.

The sleeker, sportier version of the Beetle, a departure from the New Beetle introduced in 1998, was created to not only broaden the car's appeal in the U.S., but also to be a bigger seller in China and Europe.

Style That is Womb-like

Starting with the original and continuing with the first reinterpretation launched in 1998 -- the "New Beetle" -- the ovoid car has always been a lovable study in arches and circles. Some psychologists even posit that our love of the Beetle has to do with feeling like we are back in the womb. This 21st century design continues in that tradition (how could it not if it's to be called Beetle?), but with some attention to styling that is meant to attract more men to the car than the last model. The 1999 New Beetle was so bulbous in appearance, it was practically the vehicular interpretation of a breast. And men, it turns out, may like a breast, but they don't much want to be caught driving one. More than 70% of the New Beetle buyers were women.

"We started with the original Beetle for inspiration in the studio," says Volkswagen chief designer Klaus Bischoff. "We started from scratch, not from the New Beetle and created a much sportier, more masculine car."

The hope is that the new Beetle will also lure younger buyers. The average age buyer for the 1999 New Beetle was also old enough to have driven one of the originals to Woodstock. Now that Baby Boomers who grew up as kids with original Beetles are well into their fifties and older, this New Beetle needs to attract some of the American Idol generation -- the ones that say "Who?," when a contestant is compared with Janis Joplin.

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The Car That Saves

The history of the Beetle is remarkable for both its cultural impact and its importance to the German auto company. Indeed, the Beetle has saved the company twice, and the saving acts were fifty years apart. That's pretty neat trick for just one car.

In the waning days of World War Two, German refugees who had worked in the Wolfsburg, Germany Volkswagen plant that produced war machinery -- including vehicles built on the engineering platform of the Beetle -- began squirreling machines, tools and dies into underground caverns protected from Allied air-strikes. When fighting ceased, Hitler was dead and the Allied Forces of the U.S., Great Britain and Russia began carving up pieces of Germany, workers began hand-building vehicles and bartering them for more raw material to make more cars, as well as food and other necessities of survival through the first winter after the German surrender in 1945 and collapse of the Third Reich.

The plant and machinery to build the Type One "Volkswagen," which had been ballyhooed in the late 1930s in newspapers the world over as "Hitler's Car," was wanted by the Russians. Neither the Americans, nor the Brits, especially, wanted the car or the damaged factory. But they also did not want the Russians to have it, so it was kept in the hands of the Germans as a means to rebuild their lives and economy. The German people had been promised a Volkswagen, "The People's Car," and they were finally going to get it. And, indeed, the rise of the Beetle, as reliable and durable a car as ever was built, was a crucial piece of Germany's post-war economic recovery.

The car proved to be one of the most versatile pieces of automotive technology ever created. Not only did the engineering underpinnings support the Beetle, but also a host of German military vehicles, the VW Microbus, Karmann Ghia coupe and Squareback wagon. Because the Beetle was airtight (until rust could eat away at floorboards) it could float, and be converted to an amphibious vehicle (a "Schwimmenwagen).

Rising in America

The Beetle climbed in sales and popularity in the U.S. after its introduction in the early 1950s. While some WW2 vets wanted no part of Hitler's car, others remembered how much better the German Kubelwagen (the German "Jeep") performed through the rigors of North Africa, let alone Europe, and were more than glad to buy one for purely practical reasons.

The funny looking -- by Detroit's standards -- car became the default purchase of teachers, college faculty and low-wage public employees such as social workers and civil servants. And the clever advertising created for it by New York ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, introducing humor and irony to advertising on the whole, made it an acceptable purchase for lawyers, small business owners and other college educated drivers.

It was inexpensive to buy, and the simple 40 horsepower air-cooled engine made it extremely durable, pretty fuel efficient at around 30 mpg and simple to tinker with if it didn't start some morning. A novice could easily change a fuel filter, a spark plug or tap the solenoid with a screwdriver or wrench to help a slow start. Its simplicity, combined with its unique design, was central to its charm. The original "Type One" plans specified that the car must be easy to maintain and repair in keeping with the idea that working class families could own one.

And while it has been rightly criticized for being terrible by today's crash-safety standards, its lightness of weight (1,900 pounds, almost 900 pounds lighter than the New Beetle of 1999) made for some interesting collisions. A New York City taxicab could T-bone a Volkswagen Beetle at 35 mph, and the likely effect would be to send the car flying thirty or forty feet across the pavement sliding on its 15-inch tires. If the Beetle didn't hit another car or pole, the driver had a good chance of driving away. Beetles bounced.

The demise of the original Beetle in the U.S. began in the mid 1970s as more small cars came on the scene as a result of higher gas prices. Volkswagen itself had grown weary of the Beetle, and had introduced its new small car, the Golf (sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit) that was popular in Europe and represented state-of-the-art technology. Finally, new regulations in emissions, the move to unleaded gas and new crash safety standards spelled the end of the Beetle in 1979. It would go on to be manufactured in Mexico, which had no pesky emissions or safety standards, until 2003.

New Beetle 1.0

The second act of the Beetle saving Volkswagen, the company, came in the 1990s. Without the Beetle, Volkswagen's U.S. operation struggled. U.S. built Rabbits were lousy and pocked with quality problems. Exchange rates made imported VW's pricey. The Volkswagen advertising that had charmed the U.S. and transformed Madison Avenue through the 1960s and early 70s had become banal. And by 1993, sales were so far in the toilet and the company was losing so much money that talk of leaving the U.S. was on the table in Germany.

Two American designers, J Mays and Freeman Thomas, though, had the idea for a "New Beetle" to try and rekindle interest. The company produced a "concept-car" and rolled it into the 1994 Detroit Auto Show under intense secrecy. The response for the car was greater than had been seen for any new car in decades. Reporters were seen to wipe away tears. Autoweek named it "Best In Show." The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today all put the car in their front pages, along with many a city and local daily paper carrying the AP story and photo.

The ensuing four years of anticipation and publicity, the story line of whether the company would really build it and sell it, was enough to get people interested in VW showrooms again. And they started buying VW Golfs, Jettas and Passats.

Thirteen years later, Volkswagen is rising again, not falling, in the U.S. It has an audacious sales goal of selling 800,000 VW branded vehicles in the U.S. by 2018, up from 260,000 last year. It's a goal most analysts and reporters believe to be a fantasy.

If it has any chance at all, though, Volkswagen needs another groundswell of interest in the Beetle to drive attention to vehicles the public knows little about -- The Golf, the Passat, Tiguan, CC, Touareg, Routan, and soon, the Polo. The only car in Volkswagen showrooms with anything like real name recognition outside of current Volkswagen owners is the Jetta.

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New Beetle 2.0

So, VW is not messing around. If German executives were reticent to turn back the clock in the 1990s and resurrect the Beetle to save its bacon in the U.S., the company's brass are all on board this time around.

The 2012 Beetle got a tease in last February's Super Bowl. It was an animated TV spot following an actual "Beetle" bug through a forest. Last Fall, too soon to show the new design, VW promised a new car to the entire studio audience of Oprah Winfrey's TV show during her "Favorite Things" pre-Christmas series of shows. By necessity, Oprah had a 2009 New Beetle rolled onto stage.

Volkswagen is placing a big bet on the U.S. It is opening a huge assembly plant in Tennessee later this year that will build an all new Passat mid-sized car priced and engineered to compete with Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion like the Passat has never done before because it was too small and too expensive.

The Beetle will be built in Puebla, Mexico, not Tennessee. But its success in ringing the cash register and once again igniting passion about design, being unique and making a statement with what one drives, will have as much to do with the demand for those cars being built near Nashville as the quality and likability of those cars themselves.

The price for the 2012 Beetle has not yet been set. You can expect to see it in showrooms this October.

David Kiley is Editor-in-Chief of AOL Autos. He is author of "Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America:" John Wiley and Sons, 2001.

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