x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Volkswagen Beetle

The Volkswagen Beetle could have gone down in the annals of automotive history as the car of choice for Second World War German army officials.

The new Beetle is cute but imperfectly formed.
The new Beetle is cute but imperfectly formed.

The Volkswagen Beetle could have gone down in the annals of automotive history as the car of choice for Second World War German army officials. But that potential public relations debacle was somehow averted. Instead of being best known as the car preferred by Adolf Hitler's acolytes, the Beetle was embraced by hippies in the 1960s who used it as a cute, economical way to transport themselves and four friends to the nearest peace rally, protest or happening. The curvy exterior with shoehorn shaped fenders was frequently painted with flowers and peace signs. The rear-mounted engine (about the only thing the old VW Beetle has in common with the new Lamborghini Murcielago) made that distinctive noise that sounded as if the car was run on baked beans rather than petrol. It was a car that seemed to symbolise the freedom and lack of obsession with materialism that was part of the hippie ethos.

But when the freewheeling free love of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by the flashy capitalism of the 1980s, the humble Beetle wasn't quite so cool any more. The interior was too basic with just a few dials on the dash and the gear stick poking nakedly from the floor without a nice centre console to hide the inner workings. A top speed of 130kph and lack of optional extras didn't signify success in the "greed is good" era in the same way that a brand new red Corvette might. Subsequently, Volkswagen Beetle factories across the globe closed and while Beetles could still be seen lurking around university car parks and The Love Bug continued to be a favourite movie with kids around the world, it was clear the glory days for the old Beetle were over.

Factories started closing down in 1978 and while the Mexican factory in Pueblo stubbornly kept churning out old-style Beetles until 2003, the New Beetle was by then already a reality. First launched at the North American International Motor Show in Detroit in 1994 as a concept car, the production model of the New Beetle was born in 1998 but it seems that the marketing department played a bigger role in the delivery ward than the boffins did.

By 1994, the kids of the hippies were getting their driving licences and surely they'd want to drive something retro-cool. After all, it was around this time that the hip young things thought it was amusing to gad about in John Lennon-style sunglasses even if they had faces the size of dinner plates. There was probably not much point marketing the new Beetle to the original hippies - they were too busy making money, getting divorced and fighting over who'd get custody of the Volvo. But their kids were becoming image-conscious adults with increasingly bigger disposable incomes. Especially with so many of them still living at home, the compulsion for one's first car to be an embarrassing, spluttering rust-bucket had diminished.

The New Beetle has taken some of the styling cues of the Beetle of old - the curves, the round headlights, the small rear window, the very basic dash with just three dials, the panels on the inside of the doors to match the exterior colour, the back seat that requires anyone taller than 5'2" to sit with their knees pressed against their chins are all there. For a brief, panic-stricken moment I thought there was no clock but I finally spotted it just above the rear view mirror. It is about the same size as a stick of chewing gum.

Unlike the Beetle of old, the engine is in the front rather than the back and it just doesn't seem to perform with a whole lot of pep. The automatic model has a sports mode that just seems to burn more fuel and cause over-revving rather than offering any new thrills with the performance. At least there's a six-speed gearbox - more economical and more choice. The best way to have any kind of fun with this car is to knock the gear lever to one side so it can be driven as a sequential manual. This way, you can actually select a gear that is appropriate for the speed rather than leaving it to the whim of an automatic transmission that is flakier than Amy Winehouse's complexion. If the next generation of Beetles incorporated paddle shifters, that would be a huge improvement.

It's a car that attracts squeals of "isn't it cute?", generally from women, and it is very clear that this car is directly aimed at ladies who have a bit of cash to spend on a new car but don't care too much about power or performance. There's even a little vase, which is shaped like a test tube, fitted into the dashboard so you can merrily enjoy a floral arrangement, albeit a single-stemmed one, as you drive along. I'm not entirely sure how pleased I'd be to have some pollen-infested bloom hovering under my nose as I drove - for me, it'd be in the same annoying category as dangly air fresheners, fluffy dice or the utterly inexplicable CDs hanging off the rear view mirror. Besides, how long would a fresh flower last in a parked car in this climate?

Like every Volkswagen on the market today, even the whiny little Polo and the baffling CrossGolf, the new Beetle is a very well-built, well finished car. As long as you give the silly Sports mode a miss, it's very economical on fuel, and easy to park as long as you get used to the driver's seat position which is very much in the middle of the car. It's a perfectly fine little car for nipping around town provided you don't feel too silly driving a car with a vase. Just be aware that it is very hard to command too much respect from your fellow motorists, even if you are 100 per cent in the right. I was openly laughed at when I honked a Toyota Prado driver who idiotically tried to overtake me while I was turning a tight single-lane corner off Al Saada Street.

On the open road, the power's not brilliant and the faster you go, the louder the howls of protest from the engine. It's a car that's designed to look cute, get the driver and the shoe shopping from A to B and while it's more than capable of venturing out of your home emirate for a weekend away, it's hardly likely to blaze a radar-bothering trail of mayhem up the motorway. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - with new drivers having (or being given...) more money than ever to spend on their first car, I'm far happier to see the newly licensed pottering about town in their little Beetles than potent Mustangs or top-heavy 4x4s.

Of course when I was in the market for my first car, the budget was more likely to get me a Beetle of old rather than a brand new Dh68,000 Beetle, but clearly times have changed. Excuse me while I climb back into my big, high 4x4, look down on the kids of today and feel a little bit old. glewis@thenational.ae