Death’s door revolves once more for VW’s retromobile. Perhaps we’ll miss it this time, but only if it promises to go away.
At the recent Geneva motor show, Volkswagen’s research and development chief, Frank Welsch confirmed the much rumoured demise of the Beetle. Many commenters had speculated since VW’s fortunes (both reputational and financial) took a dive in the wake of the firm’s emissions-revelations, that niche models like the Beetle were on deathwatch, so in many ways this news comes as no surprise.
Indeed, according to some sources, production could cease as early as this year. More surprising perhaps is the fact that it lasted this long, given that in the realm of retro reanimations, the New Beetle never quite hit the mark.
Forged during the early ’90s retro-style bonanza, it was first unveiled as ‘Concept One’ at the NAIAS in 1994. Styled under the supervision of Peter Schreyer, with design credit attributed to both J. Mays and Freeman Thomas, Concept One, which was based on the B-segment Polo, was warmly received by press and public; the Cabriolet version shown at Geneva’s Palexpo later that year, even more so, with loud exhortations for VW to put it into production.
Never the most agile of businesses, it took the VW mothership quite some time to erect a robust business case not to mention a viable production-engineering template for the car, by which time it had grown thanks to Golf IV underpinnings and had also lost some of the concept’s immediacy and appeal.
New-Beetle did seem to chime with Western popular culture’s appropriation of the past – a period which saw epochs collide with an audible pop. Happy to surf the coat tails of the original, but shorn of its limitations, foibles and arguably a good deal of its charm, New Beetle was instead a slightly boneless, feelgood cover version of a car with a decidedly darker backstory.
VW were at pains to push the flower-power aspect of New-Beet, the interior’s addition of a flower-holder taking the cuteness quotient to toe-curling levels. Nevertheless, the car was well-received, albeit the Golf underpinnings did not for a dynamic drive make. Neither did they lend it much in the way of practicality, being significantly less commodious for both cabin-dwellers or luggage than its considerably more practical (and fit-for-purpose) sibling.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect to New-Beet’s story is why it took so long for VW to productionise a Cabriolet version – arguably the only Beetle derivative that truly made sense. Introduced a good three years after the hardtop, it not only looked more pleasing, but also lent the model a bit of So-Cal cool. By then of course, BMW’s past-reloaded MINI had landed and was eating the Beetle’s lunch with brown sauce.
With over a million produced until its 2010 demise, New-Beet was a sales success, which was probably all the encouragement VW management needed to sanction its current-era replacement. Certainly by then, VW’s product planners should have been asking considerably more searching questions as to the future viability of the model, but the feeling appeared to be that if BMW could make a watertight retro business-case, why couldn’t they?
Bigger in most dimensions than the outgoing car (it needed to be, since New-Beet was in packaging terms something of a disaster), new-New-Beet was on one hand a more mature, more finely honed version of the original remake, yet on the other a creatively bankrupt formula. By rights VW should have left things where they were in 2010, or at the very least only sanctioned it in open form.
More expensive, model for model, yet less practical and an inferior driving experience than its in-house sibling, the current Beetle is decisively outpointed not only by the Golf, but also by BMW’s more affordable MINI-reloaded. Now with sales dropping and the market resistant to VW’s attempts to enliven their offer, the axe is poised.
Realistically, this has little to do with NOxgate, Beetle’s fifteen minutes being emphatically up – (no exclamation mark). Had VW’s planners read the runes better, they might have salvaged the model’s future by recasting it as a crossover SUV, but foresight has never appeared to have been much in evidence.
The latest from Wolfsburg is that the Beetle will be partially replaced by a production version of the I.D. Buzz concept (a variation of the perennial Microbus), and a concept for which VW have been attempting to make a case for what seems like decades. There is also talk of a convertible version of the forthcoming T-Cross Breeze crossover in the product plan, which tells you everything you need to know about where Klaus Bischoff’s priorities lie.
Given the current climate, we’ve undoubtedly seen the last of the Beetle for now. But who knows if it will truly stay dead this time. That coffin lid seems awfully flimsy.