Commentary: So Long, Slug Bug

2017 Volkswagen Beetle Dune
Photo by Randy Stern

The first time around was an icon mired in global history and eventual conflict. The second time around was just for nostalgia's sake.

The Volkswagen Beetle had a shape that was simple, fun, joyous, and spoke to the needs of world transportation. Whether it was the original air-cooled, rear-engine car or the Golf-based retro coupe, Beetles brought joy to the masses.

The 2019 model year will be the icon’s swan song. But, will we miss it?

It is a good question to ponder. It is also one where we have to tread between sales and production data and emotional response.

If we were to base our response on purely data and numbers, the Beetle would be a prime candidate to end production. It has not sold well in the past few years in many markets outside of North America. There had been months in the USA when the Beetle was holding its own.

The issue here is that almost everyone seems to not want an inexpensive small coupe. When an entire segment seems to be ignored by all customers, how could anyone compete in it? The Hyundai Veloster will be the last inexpensive small coupe standing when the last Beetle is sent down the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico.

The current Beetle is built on an older Golf A5/PQ35 platform, and not the flexible MQB one that seems to underpin a slew of new product from Volkswagen. Economics dictate that any product on a platform that is no longer viable to produce should be eliminated for better efficiencies within the company.

One could argue that such thinking rubs against what Volkswagen had been doing in China for years. Which makes me wonder why the Chinese have not taken on the Beetle as a continuing model in their home market past the final production date in 2019. The answer is simple – they are not buying the Beetle, either.

Still, this car evokes emotional responses. A look at the current Beetle harkens back to the original one.

Still, many of its owners have forgiven the fact that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche developed the car in response to Adolf Hitler’s want of a car for the German people. While production was restarted in Wolfsburg after the end of World War II, the Type 1 became the most successful survivor of that era.

The old Type 1 lasted until 2003 when the Puebla, Mexico plant produced its final rear-engine original. The New Beetle has been in production at the same plant since 1997. The latter was seen as a spiritual successor to the original Type 1 – the shape inside and out dictated a mashup between classic and modern elements as a paean to its history.

The modern New Beetle was seen as a curiosity than its original intent on building mobility for the world. It was a retro boutique car that attracted those wanting the spirit of the original, but with the underpinnings of a Golf. That spark of sales in North America only fizzled out when it appeared that it could not compete in a world full of sedans, SUVs, and crossovers. It also had an image complex that dictated certain demographics than a wider catchment of the customer. In other words, gender and sexual orientation were seen as limiting to the New Beetle's success – not exactly politically correct, but an honest observation.

The second generation was envisioned to a more masculine appearance than its predecessor. It may have helped its cause, as the Beetle was employed into a motorsports strategy for Volkswagen. If you put Scott Speed and Tanner Foust behind the wheel and have them run in a rallycross circuit, it might induce some sales.

On a small scale, it did improve the current Beetle's image. Sadly, not a lot of people were buying one. No matter how many special editions you can create to induce sales, customers who went to Volkswagen showrooms in the USA were looking for Tiguans, Jettas, and GTIs.

Could have the Beetle done any better? In this SUV-leading market, no.

V&R had covered the latest – and final – generation of the Beetle. First, as part of a trio of short drives, including a 2013 Beetle convertible. The last one was with the 2017 Beetle Dune coupe – a somewhat lifted version of the car. In all, I had experience in both generations of the "New" Beetle, while riding along in the older versions on occasion in my younger years.

On some level, I will miss the Beetle. The marketplace will not. Sad, but true.

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