Remember the Nineties? Car Design went through a retro phase, car-makers creating modern versions of icons from the Fifties and Sixties. Ford redid the Thunderbird, there was the new Mini, of course, but the car which started the craze was the Beetle. In 1994 Volkswagen showed the Concept One, which received such a positive response that in 1998 it went into production as the New Beetle.
Loved at first, soon media and customers became cynical about it being a Golf in a frock. With the Mini arriving in 2001, the Beetle love affair was short-lived. Mini was cool, drove brilliantly and was bespoke. But the Beetle is an icon, nonetheless. The problem with retro design is, how do you update it? That was the question that faced VW’s design team when designing the new Beetle. Can it succeed where the last one failed?
If you’re buying a car like this, looks will be fairly high on your priority list. In photos, this new Beetle seems similar to the last one, but in the steel, it’s actually quite different.
Compared to before, it looks like it’s been to a hot rod shop. The ride height seems chopped and that roof line’s flatter – gone is the continuous arc through windscreen, roofline and rear window of the old car that gave its slightly dorky feel. This new car looks way better because it’s more dynamic, more automotive – looking like it might actually drive well – yet still recognisably Beetle.
It’s roomier than before, too. There’s more space in the boot, although it’s still small compared to a Golf. And there’s now a cut-out in the roof above the rear passenger seats, which means those over five foot five will no longer end up with cricked necks.
Some of the details stand out – check out the elasticated door-pocket holders, or the upper level glovebox which harks back to the original Beetle, flipping up via a cool little handle. Neat they may be, but it doesn’t feel as immediately special and different from the norm as a Mini. That steering wheel looks like an obviously cheapened version of what’s in the Scirocco. And although the body-coloured dashboard panel adds a splash of colour, it signifies the Beetle’s newfound, but unwanted, status of follower rather than leader, because it’s a cue straight from the Fiat 500, which was then also copied by the Citroen DS3.
Cars have come a long way since the original Beetle. Even in the 14 years since the first New Beetle was launched, in-car technology has moved farther than we might ever have imagined. And in this area, the Beetle is as you’d expect anything from the VW group to be: pretty impressive.
You get VW’s standardised touch and button-controlled centre screen, mounted high up on the dash. It’s similar to what you’ll find in a Golf and host of other VW Group cars, but that’s really no bad thing, as it works brilliantly. We find it consistently faster responding to touches than the system in much more high-end cars - such as Jaguars - and much more intuitive to use.
On our mid-level "Design" trim car, its features not only include a digital radio - take note other car makers - but also an SD card slot and both USB and iPod cable integration. It’s also capable of connecting a phone. Not that our iPhone 4 wanted to play ball with it - abut Blackberry did, which makes us think this might have been the Apple device having a sulky day rather than VW’s system not providing the up-to-date connectivity.
Whatever you play on it sounds great too, thanks to our test car’s Fender Premium Soundpack, which upgrades the wattage output, adds extra speakers and shoves a subwoofer in the boot. At night, it also illuminates the door speakers and you get "Fender" script on the grilles, which in the Beetle seems fittingly retro. At £495 we reckon it’s money well spent.
It’s worth noting that on top of this you get two 12-volt sockets in the centre console and a driver information system with gear-change indication to help you optimise fuel economy. However, nice though that is, it’s a shame the Beetle doesn’t feature the rather neat "Think Blue" coaching system from the Up!, or the fun "Minimalism Analyser" you get with Mini.
Surely, a fun, fashionable car like the Beetle is exactly the kind of place to do something a little different like this? It seems a shame you just get the same thing you would in many other cars from the VW group. We were also disappointed not to find stop-start as standard on such a new car.
The biggest criticism of the Beetle this car replaces is the way it drives. This new car is based on the same platform as the current Golf, so you’d expect it to be better – and indeed it is. Climb in and drive off and in the first couple of minutes the Beetle makes its best attempt to convince you of its reason for existence. That upright windscreen, wide, high dashboard and high roof do make it feel like a very different place to sit, compared to the Golf.
Visibility isn’t bad considering how "designed" everything is – our only advice would be to spec parking sensors (£325 for front and rear), because it’s impossible to tell where the back of the car stops.
It feels big and solid out on the road too, gripping well in corners and generally giving you a feeling of confidence behind the wheel. We drove the new 1.2 TSi engine option, which will be available later in the year. It’s the cheapest way into a Beetle and should deliver great economy. Our car had only about 200 miles on the clock so our 38mpg figure probably isn’t representative.
It’s no sports car, but coupled with the 7-speed, automatic DSG gearbox it makes for a relaxing and quiet ride. Fine for those indulging their inner flower-power, but the higher powered, 1.4 TSi might be a better call for people who like to hustle with the Audi and BMW-driving photocopier salesmen out in the fast lane.
If your heart’s set on a Beetle, or you’ve always been a fan of the nameplate, then this new car will do little to upset you and a lot to make you like it. But the point of this new model is to expand the car's appeal, and dial away some of the girlie image and "cynically re-bodied Golf" accusations many threw at the last car. Does it succeed? Up to a point. Not to put too fine-a-point on it, but we can imagine plenty of men who wouldn’t have been seen dead in the previous car happily driving the new one - though perhaps avoid baby blue and opt for the more aggressively styled sport trim.
But for the rest of us, the Beetle remains a slightly confusing car whose purpose in life is unclear - we still aren't sure to whom it will appeal. Its biggest issue is its highly impressive opposition, even within its own mother company. Want a "do everything", classless car with a VW badge? Buy a Golf, and save yourself some money. Want that VW badge with style? Buy the better-driving, more-sophisticated Scirocco. Looking for something characterful, fun and don’t need much space? Then try a Mini, 500 or even a Citroen DS3.
All that might seem unfair. Don’t mistake the Beetle for a bad car, it’s far from it. But it still seems like more of a marketing exercise, a car playing on its past, but offering nothing new and unique in the present. Spend a day behind the wheel of a 500 or Mini and you can’t help but get out with a smile on your face. The point of this type of car is to make you feel special and good about yourself. The Beetle doesn’t really do that. Ultimately, it left us feeling rather cold with its lack of character, which we think is a shame. Herbie must be turning over in his grave.