A few days ago, our own Patrick George wrote about the rumors that VW is considering dropping the slow-selling Beetle from its lineup. This got me thinking, because I still remember the joy I felt when VW re-introduced the Beetle name back in 1998. But, really, it's just a Golf in a costume. So what should a modern Beetle really be?
I'm an original Beetle owner, but I'm not delusional about what the now two generations of reborn Beetle are. They're not really Beetles, but that's fine — they're stylish and fun 'lifestyle' cars (I think that's just marketing speak for "slightly less boring") based on the modern and proven Golf platform. For what they are, I like them, and I think the latest, restyled version looks great, and is fun to drive. But get past the nostalgia and the more fun, cartoonish design, is there a compelling reason to get one over a Golf? Not really.
That's why I started to really think about what a Beetle should be. Let's say VW does drop the latest version of the new Beetle, and, via a combination of drugs and a stack of clumsily but evocatively doctored photographs, VW agrees to let me decide on the direction of a re-reborn Beetle. What would a true modern-day Beetle be like?
Here's what I came up with:
This new new Beetle — let's call it the Generation 3 Modern Beetle, or Gen3 for short. I toyed with the idea of branding it as a 'Bug' to differentiate it from the Beetle, but that'd probably just get more confusing. So, for the purposes of this article, it's the Gen3. Great? Great.
So, where was I? Right, what the Gen3 should be. It can't be a re-bodied Golf anymore. That's been explored, and I think the vacation days of the Beetle being a premium-ish lifestyle car are done. The original Beetle was a car that got shit done, and now it's time for the Beetle to go back to work.
Fundamentally, the original Beetle was about cheap, reliable, honest transportation. It was because of this lack of pretension that the Beetle was able to transcend its bargain-basement role to become a car anyone would drive, rich or poor, famous or anonymous, jackass or saint.
The Gen3 Beetle needs to get back to those ideas. The Gen3 needs to be a genuinely cheap car again, it needs to be unashamedly basic, but also clever, useful, and reliable. The Gen3 Beetle should ideally sell in the US for around $10-$12,000 or so, and would compete with cars like the base Fiat 500, Chevy Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage, etc.
Now, these sorts of cars are rarely appealing for companies in the US market. I know that. That's why this Gen3 Beetle should be designed as something that would be a volume seller in China and India as well. The Beetle needs to get back to its genuine People's Car roots, and to do that you've got to go where the people are. I hear China and India have plenty.
Styling-wise, it still has to look and feel like a Beetle. That means from a distance, it shouldn't look too radically different than the current or first-gen New Beetle, since they both modernized the essential look quite well. Proportions will change a bit, and I personally want to bring back the front hood stamping design, but it's going to be very recognizable as a Beetle. There will be cost-saving details like a LeCar/Renault 5-style cutout door handle, exposed hinges on the rear hatch, and an unstressed and removable roof panel via simple, exposed screws.
Part of the essential charm of the original Beetle had to do with its novel engineering. Novel, but rational — the Beetle wasn't weird to be weird, it just ended up weird compared to the mainstream because of the solutions it took to problems. Air-cooling means no radiator or water plumbing system, rear engine means no driveshaft and good traction, the curvy shape meant less steel used, and so on. The Gen3 will have rational and novel engineering as well, all pulled from work VW is already doing.
The basic platform will be shared with the Up!, as much as possible. That will take the car down a full size from the current modern Beetle, so packaging and space utilization will be very important. That's where we dig into VW's past, and pull from a prototype that almost became the Beetle's successor — the EA266.
The EA266 was a master of space utilization. Here, look at this:
A front trunk, a hatch at rear, the back seat passenger sits on the engine, and the whole length of the car is usable for people or cargo. I love it. So, I'm pretty much stealing it:
There's a few differences, but we're basically dealing with the same idea. I'd put the radiator/AC condenser up front, shape the fuel tank to act as the front trunk floor, and let the Beetle's rounded shape help give back a little headroom to the raised rear seat. It's not all that different from the new Renault Twingo, but the engine is more mid- than rear-mounted (it's in front of the rear axle line), which should help mitigate oversteer and improve handling.
For the engine itself, I see two options: the 800cc two-cylinder diesel from the Volkswagen XL1 for non-US markets, and the 1L three-cylinder from the current Up!. The diesel will play especially well in countries like India, where diesel small cars are the norm, but I think the output of around 50 HP would be too little for the US. Maybe they could get some more out of it? I'm just not sure.
The Up!'s 3-cylinder makes near enough to 100HP to make it viable to compete with the low-end of the US market, and should be plenty of power for the car. Gas mileage should be very strong on the 1L version, and should be phenomenal — well over 50MPG, probably? — on the diesel. As far as transaxle/rest of the mid-engine drivetrain goes, I'm hoping VW could leverage the hardware and work they've already developed for their other stillborn mid-engine car, the BlueSport.
I think VW already has most of the bones of this car developed in one form or another, and while there's certainly plenty of work needed to adapt these engines and drivetrains into the Up! platform, it hardly seems like an impossible task.
The Gen3 Beetle needs to be as rugged and worry-free as possible as well, and the way to achieve this is to give up a bit of conventional aesthetic constraints. The bumpers, for example, should be unpainted black rubber/plastic. No factory option for paint. The bumpers are there to do a job, and if you back into a hydrant or a meth-addled rotweiller goes to town on your bumper, it barely matters. No dings that crack paint and give you a $1500 repair bill here. In the same way, the original Beetle's runningboard is referenced in the Gen3 by a tough black rubber side-guard to help stave off dings and absorb mild damage.
There's just steelies available for the wheels, and inside, instead of a lot of carpet, there's rubber mats. You can fold down the seat and stick your dog in the back, and if he pukes masticated cat poops everywhere, it's not the end of the world. Maybe there should even be a drain in the floor. Everything is comfortable and well-made, but designed for durability over luxury.
Of course, US versions would need to have airbags and all the required safety equipment. Non-US ones could probably get away with a good bit less.
Aftermarket suppliers should be encouraged to make things like fancier wheels or painted bumper caps or replaceable roof panels (canvas sunroof? Clear plexi? Why not?) if people want them, but VW just makes the basics.
Even the dashboard and controls should fit the philosophy. It's modeled after the original Beetle dash, but the main instrument binnacle is a monochrome, relatively lo-res backlit LCD panel. Those are cheap as dirt now, and still plenty flexible to display anything you'd need to see. All the infotainment/nav and other controls would be handled by your smartphone. There would be a special slide-in docking unit on the dash to hold and connect to/power the phone. An app on the phone would activate when docked, and give you all the required controls. No phone? VW could sell you a dedicated drop-in unit, then. But come on, everyone has a phone.
This new Gen3 Beetle could pick up where the original left off. It would be designed honestly, with clear goals and minimal pretention. It would be light and simple, and fun to drive as a result. The cars should be cheap enough that people would feel free to personalize and experiment, just like they did with the original Beetle. It would make an ideal first car, or a very handy second or third car for families.
The Gen3 Beetle would be born into an iconic reputation and status, which would free it from having to try and find some identity. That freedom means it doesn't have to hide behind too much artificial frippery. It's free to be a transportation tool that gets used however you need it, but it has an ingrained sense of fun.
It should come in a ton of interesting colors, have fun options for the color and design of the cheap/rugged interior materials, and, above all, become a car you could actually love, simply because it just is what it is.