Less flower power, more grunt from Beetle

Last updated 05:00 10/02/2013

The new Beetle: "I had a smiley face just like the grille of the previous car after a short time.''

Muscle car: All the new Beetle needs is a bit more power and blokes will love it.

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The glass flower holder is thankfully missing from the dash of the third iteration of the Volkswagen Beetle.

It was probably placed inside the front-drive second-generation version back in 1997 to reinforce the tenuous connection that its cantankerous old air-cooled rear-engine forebear had to hippies, flower power, and peace, love and happiness 30 years earlier.

VW was obviously keen for potential buyers not to look too far back into the original Beetle's murky past, and the glass vase provided a visual stopping point in the car's timeline at the year 1967.

This helped obscure memories of 1938, and the original Beetle's international press introduction in Berlin, which was orchestrated by a certain Josef Goebbels.

That ancestral arse-engine Volkswagen had stronger links to Himmler than Herbie, Disney's lovable racer; hence the flower vase on the inside, and the bright smiley-faced grille on the outside, of the first front-engine Beetle.

Trouble was, these visual links to 1960s counter-culture did little to help the new Beetle attract male buyers in a post-punk world.

The second-gen Beetle quickly attracted a loyal female buyer demographic, usually divorced, post-menopause, with an interest in macramé and yoga.

Men therefore continued to stay away from the car like it was booby-trapped as the years rolled by. However, Volkswagen hasn't wasted the past 15 years since it last made an all-new Beetle. It probably spent the first five contemplating whether this throwback design to 1938 had any future at all, then the next 10 refining a strategy that would help it attract a wider audience.

In comes a whole new look despite the retention of the original car's signature mushroom-domed roofline. Puffed up and buffed in just about every direction, and adopting a much more aggressive stance, the muscular new Beetle II appears to have discovered its inner stormtrooper.

Inside, the new dash is said to bear some resemblance to a Fender Stratocaster guitar, but all I saw was the panelling of a Golf dashboard painted white to mimic the colour of Jimi Hendrix's upside-down Strat (thankfully without the Monterey Festival burn scars).

I found out that these painted dash panels are colour matched to the exterior of the car. So if you buy a black Beetle, a highly appropriate colour for the insect, you're going to end up with an interior that's possibly as dark and uninviting as the World War II-era bomb shelters that still lie beneath Volkswagen's headquarters in Wolfsburg.

Like its predecessor, the new Beetle is essentially a Golf with a retrospective body placed over it, except the mechanicals and structural foundations are now those of the sixth-generation Golf instead of the stodgy old Mark IV version. This does much to lift the driving experience of the Beetle.

This newest Beetle is a whole new take on entomological motoring.

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I soon had a smiley face just like the grille of the previous car after a short time at the wheel.

Presently powered by a 1.4-litre direct-injection turbocharged engine driving the front wheels via a 7-speed twin-clutch gearbox, the Beetle II scurries rather than sprints from A to B. It's not a bad little powertrain; it's frugal with fuel, and always willing, responding to the throttle with little of the lag that small-displacement turbos are prone to.

Volkswagen obviously has something bigger in mind, as the chassis feels like it could easily handle more power than the 1.4's 118kW output. I wouldn't be surprised to see a turbocharged 2.0 litre GTi version arrive, and queues of good keen blokes lining up to buy it.

There's new macho image to this car, and all it needs is a bit of extra poke to back it up. The 235/45 tyres and 18-inch tyres are crying out for a more powerful engine to test their grip.

So Volkswagen has finally got the $46,500 Beetle's looks right on a car where looks are everything as they're the only reason to buy one instead of a more practical and spacious Golf. Just remember to leave the flowers at home.

- Sunday Star Times


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