Car Guy

Worst of the Beetles

The New Beetle goes the way of the Old -- but for different reasons.

By 12.10.09

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Twelve years after its return, the New Beetle is reportedly going the way of the Old Beetle -- into retirement and into the history books.

2010 will be the final year of production.

The New Beetle didn't last nearly as long as the Old Beetle -- whose total production life spanned an incredible 70 years and millions of examples stamped out. It was one of the most successful cars ever built in terms of total sales -- and without question the longest-surviving in continuous production, with only incremental changes made to it from the time of the original 1930s-era model all the way through to the last Mexican-built one circa 2002.

The New Beetle, which appeared in 1998, got a lot of attention and for a couple of years, it was a runaway hit -- surfing a wave of nostalgia for the Old Beetle.

But it never reached the heights scaled by its iconic ancestor -- and within a few years of production, the trendiness died down and with it, sales. The past few years have been bleak for the New Beetle, and so VW has decided to let the car fade away.

What happened? Why was the New Beetle's popularity so short-lived relative to the Old Beetle's apparently eternal charm?

Several reasons come to mind.

For one, despite the similar external appearance, the New and Old Beetles are completely different cars. This is key to understanding why the original lasted as long as it did =- and why the new one didn't.

Volkswagen is as many people know German for "people's car" -- and the original Beetle was designed, accordingly, to be simple and cheap -- both to buy and to maintain. It was consciously modeled on the example set by Henry Ford and the Model T; a car for the average worker.

It was one of the very first mass-produced unibody (a welded together frame and chassis) designs, which saved weight as well as manufacturing costs. It had a simple, air-cooled engine -- eliminating the need for a radiator, water pump and hoses. The engine itself was made of cast aluminum; the entire thing only weighed about 200 pounds vs. 400 or 500 pounds for the typical modern V-8. And the engine was mated directly to the transmission instead of connected to it via a prop shaft, resulting in a compact design that also eliminated the need for a separate axle assembly, as was common in most cars of the era.

Inside there were four horsehair-stuffed seats and not much else. Early Beetles didn't even come with a gas gauge. Rather, there was a dipstick and an emergency valve you turned by hand when the engine began to sputter from lack of fuel, which opened a reserve tank (very much like a motorcycle).

There were no power windows -- ever. No cruise control, no GPS, no ABS, no four-wheel-disc brakes. But it did have 13-inch stamped steel rims and tires cost about $30 each.

Zero to 60 took about 30 seconds and top speed was around 65 mph (as decreed by Adolf Hitler). But it was reliable transport for the masses.

Decades later, "Super" Beetles added a few amenities such a gas gauge and a radio; you could even order dealer-installed air conditioning and a gas-fired accessory heater. But the basic car was always the same. The air-cooled horizontally opposed aluminum four-cylinder was largely identical to the one you'd find in a '36 model; so was the bodywork (albeit with a few tweaks such as a larger front windshield and bigger bumpers).

Fundamentally, it was as it had always been.

More specifically, it was still cheap to buy -- and even more important, cheap and easy to keep up. Almost anyone with a very basic set of tools could perform a tune-up. There was only one fan belt to deal with. If the engine ever needed rebuilding, that could be done for at most a couple hundred bucks -- and you were then good to go for another 50,000 miles or so. A popular book during the Old Beetle's heyday was a service manual "for the Compleat Idiot." Parts readily interchanged and were available everywhere for next to nothing.

The original Beetle didn't even have an oil filter; just a screen you cleaned before topping off the engine with about three quarts of fresh oil.

Total cost, less than $5.

Now, the car was not perfect. The windshield fogged up constantly, the "heater" mostly spewed carbon monoxide, the body rusted quickly and you had to deal with constant niggling little hassles, from balkiness at start-up to unexpected stalling in the middle of an intersection. But most of these things, you could deal with or fix on your own, right there by the side of the road if need be.

It was kind of like an AK-47 rifle. Crude, but the thing usually worked and if it didn't, most of the time, you could get it to eventually.

And it was this combination of functionality and parsimony that was key to the Old Beetle's success at least as much as its being "cute."

The New Beetle, in contrast, wasn't inexpensive to buy or maintain -- and often plagued its owners with problems only a $70 per hour VW technician could deal with -- cute though it was.

It was a fully modern car, built on a fully modern front-wheel-drive chassis and with all the government-mandated emissions control, fuel efficiency and safety features -- plus all the modern conveniences that consumers have come to expect. Accordingly, it cost a lot to buy (base price in 2010 was $18,540) and a lot to maintain, too -- chiefly because unlike the Old Beetle, the New Beetle required the services of a highly trained technician equipped with all sorts of specialized diagnostic equipment and tools. Even basic maintenance such as an oil and filter change was now a big deal -- and at least five times as expensive.

The New Beetle was thus very far removed from the affordable transportation paradigm of its ancestor -- and that is why, more than anything else, its shelf-life was so much shorter.

Other than its cosmetics, it was the same in most respects as other modern cars. And when other automakers began producing similarly cute but far less costly competition -- models like the Scion xB and more recently, the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Versa -- the New Beetle lost its one advantage.

"Cute" only goes so far.

Had VW brought back the real Beetle -- the Old Beetle -- with a few updates here and there, perhaps, but still the same basic car -- it might have run another 70 years. Affordable transportation is back in vogue -- and likely to remain in vogue for some time to come. But it appears that others -- such as India's Tata Motors and perhaps China's rising stars -- will step in to meet the need this time around.

What many people don't realize is that VW couldn't have brought back the Old Beetle or anything remotely like it -- even had it wanted to. The fact of the matter is that the departure of the Old Beetle back in 1977 (U.S. market) was not due to lack of demand but rather to increasingly onerous government regulations -- everything from emissions to safety -- which eventually made it legally impossible to continue building the car for the American market.

It would have been necessary to completely redesign the Beetle -- and that's just what VW did. But in the process, VW lost what made the Old Beetle uniquely desirable.

Rest in Peace.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.