The unveiling of the new VW Beetle happened half an hour later than planned on account of a late arrival.
The cars were present, and so was a room full of excited Chinese media. And had it been anyone other than VW Board of Management Chairman Professor Doctor Martin Winterkorn who was behind schedule, they’d probably have started without him.
“This is not just a new vehicle,” hyped the voice over, “it’s the continuation of an icon.” Shortly before the covers came off, VW Group R&D boss Ulrich Hackenberg trundled on stage in an original Volkswagen in full ‘Herbie’ livery, just to ram home the Beetle’s resonance with popular culture.
The new ‘New’ Beetle looks like a bit of a pulled punch, for definite; an evolutionary update of the 1998 car rather than a daring re-think. But look closer and there are many more direct nods to the 1938 ‘Type 1’ than sink in at first. Give it time and this car’s distinctiveness permeates through.
On the stand, after the initial rush had died down, when I charged him with creating a conservative design, VW head of exterior design Mark Lichte made sure I didn’t overlook those little homages.
“Firstly, look at the profile of the new car,” he frothed: “it’s my favourite angle. See how the outline is much more ‘cabin-rear’ than the 1998 car’s; that the A-pillars are much more upright, and the visual centre of mass is concentrated over the rear arches. I loved the last Beetle for its elegant symmetry, but for me, this one’s more faithful to the original Beetle.”
“Next, consider the stance. The Beetle’s wheelbase is the same as current Golf, but the larger wheelarches and lower roofline make the car appear smaller. And compactness is vital for a Beetle too.”
“Now, take a look at the little touches,” Lichte went on. “The way the rear arches angle inwards as they flow rearwards; the short overhangs and wide tracks; the new convex curvature of the rear window and hatchback. The new car has a real ‘Beetle-back’ when you look closely.”
Lichte’s right – there is more to this remake than first meets the eye. But was there anything they considered and junked at a late stage? Anything they wanted to do that was ruled out by packaging necessities or crash regulations? Anything that might have made this new Beetle stand out from the last that little but more?
“The easiest way to have made the new car look instantly different would have been to update the ‘face’; to radically change the headlights and grille,” he answered. “We ended up leaving well enough alone though; in the end, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened when Porsche launched the ‘996’-generation 911 with those awful ‘fried egg’ headlights. It was a big risk. They corrected the mistake with the ‘997’, going back to round lamps, and showing the world that they shouldn’t have meddled. Because you don’t meddle for the sake of it when you’re re-designing an icon.”
Truth is, although VW’s spin is that it’s a ‘new original’, this Beetle is more about authenticity than originality. If you like retro car design, you’ll probably like it even more than the last one; if you loathe modern rehashes of mould-breaking old cars, you’ll find even more to dislike.
As for me, the longer I spend in this business, the more automotive remakes seem lazy, boring and forgettable. The million people around the world who bought a Beetle over the last twelve years, however, would probably disagree.