Fifty years ago, Volkswagen was basking in glory of their Beetle as the world's best selling car for decades. Though VW introduced many other technically interesting models — tradback, squareback, fastback, kombi while Brazil built an entire new model family — they were all based on the same rear mounted air-cooled engine, rear wheel-drive platform that was intended to be Hitler's People's Car in the late Thirties.
And it wasn't because there wasn't any competition. Italy's FIAT was frantically building and licensing huge FIAT factories all over the Third World and the Communist Bloc in a bid to make their FIAT Cinquecento the default world people's car. Though Detroit's Big Three were getting richer and bigger by just competing in the North American market, they abbreviated the small car development process by investing in the faltering efforts of the British small car industry to add to French and German small car makers that they already owned. The French, on the other hand, were so obsessed in their quirky and avant garde engineering solutions that their small cars had difficulty gaining mass appeal, except for Francophone Africa.
Then two things happened. Though VW was already cognizant of Japan's drive for global car exports, it was the tightening safety and emissions regulations of the USA, the world's most demanding automobile market, that pushed VW to finally prepare for the Beetle's replacement, even if the Beetle's sales were still going strong.
The great turnaround
And what a replacement. The Golf was everything that the Beetle was not. Instead of an air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mount engine driving a rear transaxle, the Golf had a liquid-cooled, inline four, transverse-mounted in front, driving a front transaxle. Instead of being shaped by long circular arcs to mimic the structural integrity and air flow efficiency of an egg, the Golf was all sharp angles for the efficiency of a box. Instead of cozy round edged windows, the Golf had acres of plate glass. The interior was a new paradigm, with zero style connection with the Beetle, not even the Wolfsburg crest. Not a flower vase holder in sight. Instead of the solid “click” sound on door closure, the Golf didn't mute its tinny sheet metal clanging. If one forgot to engage the parking brake and end up inadvertently splashing into one of Amsterdam's many canals, one need not worry. With the Beetle's sealed floor pan, it will stay afloat come rescue time. The Golf never made mention of any such inherited quality. At least Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Golf designer, incorporated the Beetle's “bulging eyes” headlight treatment, if one can be forced to imagine, as close to the far ends of the slim slot of a grille, which in turn reminded one and all that this VW has the engine in front.
Return of the comeback
As History would have it, Japan took off to become the makers of the largest selling cars in the world. While the Golf did justice to inheriting the Beetle's top selling mantle too, VW was never able to surmount the Japanese onslaught. Meantime, the Beetle lived long enough to power most of Latin America's needs for basic motoring. By then, many of the Baby Boomers who grew up with the Beetle were getting into their mid-life crisis. They soon began to pine for their “wild oats” days. Demand for the Beetle swelled, forcing VW to resurrect it based on the Golf.
Combining the best of both worlds
But why should an antiquated design find such a solid and lasting following? Solid and lasting enough to have sold 21 million and counting. Solid and lasting enough to spawn 2 retro generations, albeit, based on the car that was meant to replace it. Not bad considering the Golf has reached a larger audience of 29 million, and counting, though in far less time. So why not combine the best of both worlds by making a Golf look like a Beetle?
As a retro, the latest Golf-based Beetle caters to baby-boomer fans with design details, updated for the 21st Century. Clamshell hood. Arching front fenders. Fender Imbedded round HID headlights with LED daytime running lights. Pedestrians glancing at street level, highlight the relatively upright glass greenhouse and chopped roof hot rod silhouette, as it still resembles the original Beetle's 2-box (3-curve/bubble) outline.
A whiff of this, a hint of that
Stepping inside will impress boomers that VW's are no longer as austere as they were 50 years ago. This Mark III new Beetle has a modern rendition of the Mark 1's upright dashboard. It even has a plethora of vents, in much the same way that 50% of Mark 1's dashboard facia was festooned with vents to hide the radio's speaker. The dash, predating the matte black craze, has body color panels, just like the early 60's Beetles. VW is again taking us into a time warp, much the same way that the Beetle Mark 2, the first New Beetle had an expansive table of a dash that brought to mind the curved windshield Super Beetle 1302 S of 1970. And yes, in keeping with 30's Beetle tradition, there is a bud-vase on the dash.
Needless to say, German quality has become a permanent resident in the colossal VW factory in Puebla, Mexico, ever since the Mark II “New” Beetle was born there in 1997. True to its air-cooled roots, the instrument cluster has no temp gauge. From here on, it's all current global look. F1-inspired (or was it Austin Allegro?) square-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Despite the new Beetle's frameless door windows, it manages to capture the coziness of the original, while providing more than ample space for the rear passengers.
What this Beetle won't make is that chugging flat four sound from the back, nor its banshee scream as it reaches redline — pitifully low when compared to today's normal car engines peaking at a pedestrian 6,000rpm. Neither will it lurch upward the way the torsion bar front suspension of Beetles 50 years ago did. Today's Beetle need not have the engine hanging out back in the tail nor a sizable amount of luggage in the trunk to deliver a bounce-free rear ride. It's a planted, decent ride — despite the 55-series tires on 17-in wheels — devoid of any jerky transitions from full bump and rebound on very bumpy surfaces. Besides superior bump absorption, no drama steering, comfy ride, low NVH, etc. it rides and drives like a modern 21st century car. Remember the 1st Celica? It looked different from the Corona, from which it was based, but it drove just like it. Today's Beetle looks different from a Golf, on which it is based, but it drives just like it.
Laments of the sentimentals
Beetlemania fashion victims will lament the loss of “steering feel purity”. Owing to having just a trunk in front, Beetle Mark 1 had lightly “loaded” steering and it never needed any form of power assistance. Another pleasant sensation lost in the latest Beetle, is the way it hunkers and squats in the rear on pressing the loud pedal, when taking long severe camber and bumpy mountain road curves, like the kind one finds on vintage steeply banked, coarse aggregate tarred sections of Kennon Road. Dr. Porsche drove plenty of sorties on mountain roads like Kennon in the Alps of Austria and the Tatra mountains of Czechoslovakia when he was developing the first Beetle in the 1920s.Those who pine for this “squat and propel” sensation will need to buy a Porsche 911 to relive it. Or maybe the latest Smart Fortwo or Renault Twingo which share a rear wheel drive platform with an inline, liquid-cooled engine hanging in the back.
Planted on the ground
With multi-link full independence for suspension in the rear corners of the latest Beetle, one need not dread the treachery of swing axles jacked up, tipping the Beetle to turn turtle when cornering too fast. Spectacular roll angles and the real danger of upending in impromptu Mall parking lot slaloms are the stuff of urban legends limited only to the old Beetle.
Satisfying the purists
There won't be any rowing of the snappy but remote floor mount gear shift and pumping of the floor hinged pendant clutch pedal on this Beetle as VW automated 2 of them clutches in the new Beetle's DSG 7-speed. With the power and responses of the 1.4 TSI engine, old Beetle fans will be able to relive the low down pick up and go of the original without waiting for things to happen come mid-range rpm. Even if the hard core Beetle lovers lament this “gentrification” of the Beetle, they cannot deny that the Golf masquerading as a Beetle is a far better car all around. Yet, despite the 120% superiority of the Golf in Beetle disguise, the purists bewailed.
Our narrative won't be complete without mentioning a recent burst of hope for Beetle purists. The introduction of the VW Up! Concept in 2007 — rear engined and rear drive — was thought to be the real Beetle follow up. Nevermind if it looked like the original Golf Mk. 1, or to be honest and precise, the 1974 Audi 50, which became the VW Polo. Alas, VW chickened out at launch in 2011 and reverted to type; front engine FWD. Beetle fans continue to wonder; if Subaru and Porsche can continue making horizontally opposed engines compliant with emissions and just as tunable as liquid cooled inline engines, why can't VW? If Smart and Renault's current ForTwo and Twingo can offer rear-engined motoring without the limitations of rear engined cars, why can't VW? There's hope as the Up! is a city car, something the original Beetle wasn't meant to be, even if VW lost its nerve and finalized the Up! more as a FWD Golf than a RWD Beetle. Hitler's People's Car for the Master Race presumed versatility for both city Kaufmann and country Bauer. It was more like the French Citroen 2CV of the same era, though that was for the country paysan and ultimately the anti-thesis of the diminutive urban FIAT Topolino in Mussolini's Italy of 1920 or Sir Alec's Austin Mini city car in 1959.
So take your pick. If you are a Beetlemania fanatic, this is your panacea; a decoy for a placebo. But can purists call it a fake? Only because today's Beetle doesn't come with all the foibles of the original. In fact, it does everything as well as, or better than an up-to-minute modern car, a case where the copy or fake is better than the original. As for Golf fans, well, you wouldn't get caught swinging in an ersatz Golf.