Thanks to the Bug, as it was affectionately known, VW sold 560,000 cars in the U.S. in 1970 and reigned as the nation's leading import--long before Toyota flexed its muscle.
But then VW goofed and brought out the Rabbit in 1975, first as a Beetle companion then as its successor.
Days before Rabbit's launch at a mere $1,995, the value of the German mark skyrocketed against the U.S. dollar and the sticker swelled to $3,495. Several price increases followed.
It took VW about 10 years to come to its senses. In 1994 it unveiled the Concept I at the Detroit Auto Show, a modern rendition of the Beetle displayed to showcase a 3-cylinder diesel and battery power for future VWs.
The media went bonkers and demanded the car be built--hold the diesel and batteries. The new Beetle arrived in March of 1998 and within two years was selling more than 80,000 units, 30,000 more than forecast.
But as age set in and a host of retro rivals came and some went, sales sank to only 36,000 units last year even with the convertible that was added in 2003.
Beetle has gone eight years without a freshening. Finally VW tweaked the sheet metal for 2006.
But changes are subtle. There's only so much you can do to an inverted bathtub. Bumpers now flow into the fenders. Turn signals in the front bumper are slimmer, headlamps more oval and taillamps larger, with turn signals inside. There's also more pronounced wheel arches and an oval fuel filler door in place of the rectangular one.
Still, from 100 yards you can tell it's a Beetle and would have to park alongside a 2005 to detect the differences.
Only periodic minor change was a formula that worked for the original Bug--when it was the only import in town. But as we noted, Beetle isn't alone anymore and so we have to wonder how successful the modest restyling will be.
The styling changes were to give the car a stronger, more masculine appearance. Beetle has gotten to be known as a woman's car favored by those who'd take cute over quick. About 70 percent of the buyers are women.
There's an adage that you can sell a man's car to a woman, but not the other way around.
If Beetle is going to reach 80,000 sales again, it needs more males. Yet we can't imagine many gents named Moose or Crusher slipping behind the wheel of a machine that comes with a bud vase in the dash as standard.
That aside VW went more macho by dropping the anemic 2-liter, 115-horsepower 4-cylinder in favor of the 2.5-liter, 150-h.p. 5-cylinder in Jetta now and coming in the Golf this fall.
The 5-cylinder is teamed with a 5-speed manual as standard, a 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual mode shifting as a $1,075 option. The test car had the short-throw manual.
With the 2-liter 4 you'd look out the side windows every once in a while to ensure one of those spandex soldiers on a Schwinn wasn't about to pass.
Not the case with the much more responsive 5, which makes Beetle spirited and energetic. No more puttering while everyone passes.
VW boasts that Beetle has a top speed of 127 m.p.h. and can accelerate from zero to 60 m.p.h. in about 8.4 seconds, up from 8.4 hours with the 2-liter.
The zero-to-60 claim is to gain the attention of men if not the guy with the checkered flag.
We took it up to only 85 m.p.h.--didn't want to tip the bud vase or waken the patrolman idling alongside Interstate Highway 94.
The fuel economy is rated at 22 m.p.g. city/31 m.p.g. highway, which compares with 24/30 from the 2 liter. Not bad mileage considering you gain an extra cylinder of power, but not as good you might expect in a compact.
The optional 1.9-liter, 100-h.p. turbodiesel rated at 37/44 is the choice for those watching their fuel budget. The 1.8-liter, 150-h.p. turbocharged 4 gas engine is gone.
While 16-inch all season radials are standard, the test car, in hardtop version, came with optional 17-inch all-seasons designed for better handling and, once again, to catch the eye of males.
Good grip in corners and turns while still cushioning cabin occupants from bumps in the road. As an added benefit, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard.
Decent ride and handling as well as performance, but there are gripes.
With the aerodynamic egg shape you'd think the car would be quiet cruising on the interstate, but wind noise was pronounced.
Getting in back is rather easy because the front seats tilt forward to open roomy aisles. Yet those sentenced to the back seat have precious little room, especially for the melon unless they open the hatchback lid and stick their head out.
Trunk space is limited to a couple small suitcases. For more room, the rear seat backs fold--after removing headrests and flipping seat bottom cushions forward.
Glass--front, side and rear--is large for good visibility, but the wide roof pillars can block some of that view. Outside mirrors are too small, and vehicles coming up alongside are lost for a long time in the blind spot.
Seats are manually operated with a lever to raise or lower them while one of those infernal twist knobs adjusts the slant of the back. The patience to use it is optional. The seats are well cushioned, but side bolsters aren't designed to hold you tight in 127-m.p.h. maneuvers--65 is about tops with the seat belts cinched a notch tighter.
Storage room is limited to a glove box that barely holds the owner's manual, a tiny space in the center armrest and a small tray under the dash.
And what a dash it is. The top is so large you'll need a dust mop with a handle extension to clean it.
Nice touches include power plugs under the dash and center armrest and enough room between the front seats that you don't sit thigh to thigh as in the original Bug.
The original Bug was bare bones but the new Beetle comes with heat and air conditioning (with dust and pollen filters), power locks and windows (with pinch protection to stopand retract if a hand is in the path), power heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, in-dash single CD player with MP3 capability, cruise control, front and side air bags and daytime running lights.
Base price is $17,180.
Only options are a choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio for $375; power sunroof, premium sound system and heated front seats/window washer nozzles at $1,390; and a package with those items plus leather seats, 17-inch radials on alloy wheels, fog lights and rain-sensing wipers at $3,145.
History has shown that retros come and go--as evidenced by the Ford Thunderbird, Plymouth Prowler and Pontiac GTO. The Bug deserves better fate--without the bud vase.
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2006 Volkswagen Beetle 2.5L
rice as tested: $20,708
Wheelbase: 98.7 inches
Length: 161.1 inches
Engine: 2.5-liter, 150-h.p. 5-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual
CITY: 22 m.p.g.
HWY: 31 m.p.g.
Base price: $17,180
$3,145 Option package No. 2 with power sunroof, premium sound system, heated front seats and heated window-washer nozzles, leather seating surfaces, 17-inch alloy wheels with all-season radial tires, fog lights, rain-sensing wipers and self-dimming interior mirror
$375 Sirius or XM satellite radio
*Add $615 for freight
First exterior change since Beetle bowed in the 1998 model year with a more masculine look.
New 5-cylinder engine to beef up performance.
Fun little runabout now aimed more at men.
- Bud vase.
- Rear-seat room.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.