REF­ER­ENCE MARK

Al­though hear­ken­ing back to a beloved de­sign can be smart for un­der­pin­ning a brand, in the end, dol­lars make sense.

Motor Trend - - Contents - @markrechtin Mark Rechtin REF­ER­ENCE MARK

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

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