Memo to the Volkswagen Beetle: Embrace Your Feminine Side, Already

G.E. Anderson

MORE AT YAHOO! AUTOS

“I love my Beetle,” German yoga instructor Johanna Claassen says of her pearlescent blue 2010 New Beetle. “But if a guy was into a Beetle? Let’s just say I wouldn’t be into that kind of guy.”

That, in a nutshell, is the problem Volkswagen faces as the company sets to re-launch its iconic model, which returns to the U.S. this October after a one-year hiatus. It’s a problem because “we’re targeting 59 percent men and 41 percent women,” says Andres Valbuena, Beetle product manager. According to Valbuena, 70 percent of the previous generation Beetle buyers were females. Image being everything, deleting pale yellow from the color chart might combat the “chick car” image more than appearances on daytime TV (VW’s initial marketing effort involved giving 250 of the cars away on "Oprah").

To its credit, Volkswagen has dropped the “New” from the official model name, thus avoiding awkward references to the “new New Beetle.” Literally, the name was never attached to the car until now: for the first time, a “Beetle” or “Volkswagen” badge is optional.

Who needs badges when the overall shape is instantly recognizable as a Beetle? Some 22.5 million Beetles have been built since 1938, and although the heritage is obvious—the new car really is new from the ground up—bystanders might not notice much of a difference from the 2010 model. Sure, the taillights are no longer circular. LEDs now surround the bi-xenon headlights, but they’re still ovals, and the front air intake looks more smiley-faced than ever.

The profile and rear angles are where similarities to the more androgynous Type 1 Beetle are most apparent, from the steeply raked A-pillar and windshield to the swept-back C-pillar, which flattens the previous car’s dome-like roof and creates precious headroom for rear passengers.

The differences are more dramatic on the interior. For one, the dashboard no longer resembles an in-car air hockey table. Instead, there’s a vertically mounted glovebox, just like in the old Beetles, which Volkswagen calls Kaeferfach, meaning “Beetle bin.” And, of course, the bud vase is gone.

At its press launch in Berlin, Volkswagen had a 1958 model on hand, which was a kick to drive (see below for Jay Leno’s test drive of the 1938 model, which hardly changed over 20 years). Maybe it was the ’58 model’s khaki color, or lack of seatbelts, or fire extinguisher—whatever it was, the Type 1 Beetle was not feminine. Functional, yes (unless you needed heat in the winter months). But aesthetically speaking, the Type 1 had a bulldog’s demeanor (even its engine growled like a canine), whereas the New Beetle and—the new 2012 Beetle—resemble a pug more than a pit bull.

On the road, however, there’s no comparison. The new car’s 200 horsepower allows for autobahn speeds of more than 125 mph, though the now steeply raked windshield and 19-inch wheels collaborate to make a lot of noise at highway speed. Still, paddle shifting the dual-clutch gearbox—perfectly matching revs—is about as much fun as you can find for less than $25,000.

We’re happy to report that the Beetle’s original purpose—of getting people from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss, and at an affordable price—has survived intact. You just might need to be a yoga instructor to climb into the back seat.

Critical highs (must-reads) and lows from the automotive press:

Motor Trend:"Remember, the New Beetle was one of the cars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton beat with baseball bats in 'Fight Club.'" Thanks to Motor Trend for reminding us exactly what the counterculture really thinks about retro styling. And for writing an entertaining Beetle review.

Automobile Magazine: “Whether it achieves VW's oft-stated goal of being more masculine is a question observers can answer for themselves. One thing is for sure: There's no bud vase this time.” In other words: To each, his or her own.

Jay Leno’s Garage: Celebrity status claimed the first drive in the Beetle for NBC: “It’s got keyless entry. We had keyless entry when I was a kid. It’s called stealing a car,” Leno said. “The thing that astounds me about this car is how sophisticated…how much power it has. You know, it’s not that long ago that turbochargers, double-clutch gearboxes, 200 horsepower from two liters was something for exotic sports car makers.”



Car and Driver: “Best of all, the shape doesn’t appeal exclusively to women anymore.” Here’s the real kicker: If that subjective statement is the best thing the Beetle has going for it, Volkswagen is in trouble.

Road & Track:  “Recognizable for its shape alone,” is certainly true, but we’re not so sure that “the squashed greenhouse gives the new Bug a sinister, almost gangster, feel.” Like the previous New Beetle, the Beetle still appears to be smiling, so the only way we’d describe it as sinister is if the smile is supposed to be psychotic. The availability of pale yellow as a color option destroys whatever street cred you’d hope to gain from buying a Bug.

Popular Mechanics: “It’s pretty fun to drive.” That’s the equivalent of Jay Leno saying “it drives like a Volkswagen.”

Jalopnik.com: "In a little over a decade Volkswagen saw its Beetle transform from Adolf Hitler's dream of the "people's car" to the foulest of all marketing slurs — a 'chick car.'" That's the lead sentence in the first American-market Beetle driving impression to hit the Internet.

Yahoo! Autos Conclusion: Metrosexual maybe, but still not what we’d call masculine. If designers could make it look even more like its insect namesake and less like the 1999 model, they'd be on to something.


2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo Facts and Figures

Class
Compact two-door coupe
Capacity
Four passengers
Configuration
Front-engine, front-wheel drive
Engine
Four-cylinder TSI turbo
Transmission
6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Power
200 hp at 5,100 rpm
Torque
207 foot-pounds at 1,700 rpm
Top speed
130 mph
Zero to 60 mph
7.4 seconds
Fuel economy
22/30 mpg (automatic)
Base price (incl destination charges)
$24,165
Remarkable features
Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel are a must-have option.


Editorial Disclosure: In the making of this article, the writer attended a media event in Berlin, Germany for which the manufacturer provided transportation, hotel accommodations, and meals. The writer also helped himself to a small jar of chocolate-covered peanuts from the hotel bar, but swears that the jet lag made him do it.