Germany, circa 1990. Ferdinand Piëch, newly installed as chairman of Volkswagen, takes note of the fact that VW sales in the United States have been stagnant for years and years, and orders the corporate brain trust to come up with something to draw those laggard Americans back to the remaining dealerships. (Twenty years ago, Oklahoma City had three Vee Dub stores; today, there is only one, and you have to look beyond the Mazdas and Subarus and the occasional Suzuki to see any Volkswagens at all.)

TV network executives talk a lot about "high concept", a euphemism for "a premise so blitheringly obvious that we don't have to waste any time actually explaining anything", and Volkswagen's California design studio, perhaps influenced by this piece of Tinseltown terminology, eventually come up with something called Concept 1, as high concept as they come, and duly ship it off to Herr Piëch.

Cut to 1994, Cobo Hall, Detroit. Concept 1 is unveiled, and the shrieks of delight in Michigan are heard in faraway Wolfsburg. Volkswagen isn't used to shrieks, but better shrieks than yawns, they reason, so the corporation sets about trying to build a reasonable facsimile of Concept 1, which will be done by taking the next version of the firm's familiar Golf sedan and squeezing sheetmetal over it until it looks like a bug. Or, more precisely, a Bug.

Scheduled for introduction in the spring of 1998, the New Beetle (and that name is apparently going to stick) is reminiscent of its fabled forebear, at least until you pop the rear hatch and find, not a flat-four engine, but actual trunk space, and not much of that. The engine, of course, is in the creature's snout. VW has preserved the old Bug's Big Round Speedometer and passenger-side grab-handle, though obligatory Nineties gear like dual air bags and ABS are lurking nearby.

The New Beetle, I suspect, will arouse mixed emotions. It is, of course, terminally cute, and will likely supplant VW's Cabriolet as the national Chick Car. And retro everything (except maybe MS-DOS) seems to be in vogue. But one of the original Bug's strongest selling points was its utter simplicity; even if perhaps you couldn't fix it with the contents of the average teenage girl's purse, you always thought you could, and, thus emboldened, you pressed on with confidence. Modern-day cars, on the other hand, would baffle even MacGyver, and the New Beetle, despite its blast-from-the-past fittings, is still essentially an up-to-the-minute German sedan that, like its brethren from VW and others, will be costly to repair if anything ever goes wrong — and something inevitably will. The guys at Volkswagen may have captured the proper Bug attitude, but it remains to be seen how well they have dealt with the substance. Not that it will keep me from wanting one of these little darbs, mind you.

The Vent

18 October 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill