Although hearkening back to a beloved design can be smart for underpinning a brand, in the end, dollars make sense.
Riding into the scrapbook of history.
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, so goes the saying.
Object lesson: Volkswagen’s decision to retire its new Beetle after 20 years on the market. It’s a bit of a shame, but reality bites.
Motor Trend loved the New Beetle, naming it our 1999 Import Car of the Year upon its launch. After the original Bug’s absence from the U.S. market for a couple decades, the modernized version—with styling courtesy of J Mays and Freeman Thomas—updated the cute Käfer to make it as iconic as the original.
It’s also the only vehicle I’ve driven—out of more than 2,500 to date, many of them showstoppers—where I can say I literally stopped traffic.
Several weeks before it was to go on sale, VW granted me access to a lemon-yellow New Beetle. Sure, there were pictures floating around on this new computernet working thing called the World Wide Web, but only a few people had seen the New Beetle in the flesh.
After absconding with the Beetle from the press-fleet warehouse, I was pootling through sunny Pasadena, running errands. As I approached the intersection of Arroyo Parkway and California Boulevard, the stale green light turned to red, and I eased to a stop at the front of the pack.
What happened next was so startling I didn’t have time to react. A trio of women on the corner ran screaming into traffic and surrounded the car. One even tried to get into the passenger seat. Observing the fuss, several people strolling out of the adjacent Trader Joe’s abandoned their shopping carts and joined the swarm. Traffic signals now moot, drivers in cars behind me put their transmissions in park and came up to get a better look.
I’ve driven six-figure supercars, million-dollar prototypes, and the like, but this sort of civic upheaval had never happened to me before—and hasn’t since. It was at least five minutes before I was able to convince these folks that we were creating a traffic nuisance and to let me get on my way.
This initial sample size of one incident had all the indications of a smash success. And for a short time it was. In 1999, its first full year on the U.S. market, the New Beetle sold an impressive 83,434 units, and it nearly duplicated that number in 2000.
But the New Beetle faced the same hurdles as any distinctive-looking car. Fashion fades quickly, especially among two-door hatchbacks with a low hip-point and poor back-seat room. In an era beginning to embrace SUVS, New Beetle sales fell precipitously. A more masculine redesign in 2011 failed to spark fresh interest. Cheap leases didn’t move the sales tachometer. Last year, new Beetle sales fell to just 15,166 units. The retail patterns were pretty much the same in the European market. When nostalgia meets pragmatism, the latter often wins.
Although hearkening back to a beloved design can be smart for underpinning a brand, in the end, dollars make sense. Developing completely different sheetmetal on a shared platform—as VW did with the Beetle on the old Golf platform—requires an investment anywhere from $200 million to $500 million, depending on the manufacturing and engineering complexities involved. A sales dud is punishing to the bottom line.
With the Golf platform receiving a substantial re-engineering, VW had to decide if making another new Beetle was worth the investment. And now we have its answer.
For those who mourn the loss of their groovy VW memories, just wait a couple years. The I.D. Buzz, an electric version of the Microbus, will be here by 2022. That should be enough time to get the band back together for a reunion tour. n