In a reader poll on Volkswagen Beetle ownership in a 1956 issue of Popular Mechanics, an Oklahoman Air Force technician wrote, “Words can hardly describe my elation over having come in contact with the VW. It’s the most wonderful thing that has happened to me since I’ve been driving automobiles.” In the same article, a woman from Florida swooned, “This is the first major love affair of my life!”
The title of the article, “Owning a VW Is Like Being in Love,” illustrates how quickly the car became a sensation. The Beetle had only been imported since 1949, and VW’s official American outfit had only been set up the year prior, yet it already had fostered a brand loyalty that takes decades to build — all from a car that can trace its development directly to the Third Reich. The Beetle was small, it was efficient, economical and above all it had character. And in post-WWII America, where cars were massive status symbols, the Beetle was an ernest means of transport. Cheap and cheerful, if you will.
Decades later, the Beetle continues in its third generation in the US, but has always felt lacking. It’s currently based on VW’s aging A5 platform, which underpinned the MKV Golf, and while that’s not a bad platform, it begs the question why you’d buy a Beetle over a similar Golf on VW’s updated MQB platform, for around the same price. What’s more, compared to the Golf, it loses out on interior space, both in the passenger area and in back cargo area. That’s not quite the affordable, practical everyday car it once was.
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Torque: 184 lb-ft
Drive Type: front-wheel-drive
And so most people justify buying the Beetle for the nostalgic looks. But although the new Beetle certainly looks like the old Beetle, in having to conform with modern safety standards and market trends, the retro styling hasn’t translated all that well. The old Beetle was cutesy but well proportioned; the new Beetle has an ungainly profile and sterile detailing.
So what to do to keep up the Beetle buzz? Volkswagen has just introduced a new Beetle model, and with it they have (perhaps unintentionally) rectified some of the modern Beetle’s wrongs. The Dune Beetle special edition is an homage to the custom Baja Bug off-road racers of the ’60s and ’70s, and the biggest changes on the Dune are a very slight 0.4-inch increase in ride height and a 0.6-inch wider track. You’d think that this is part of the general trend in the automotive market to turn every hatchback into a crossover, but you’d be wrong: the improvement is all for aesthetics. The car doesn’t drive like a crossover, nor is there a commanding, high-up seating position. Off-roadability? You won’t find it here.
The standard Volkswagen Beetle’s austerity is missing here; this is a Beetle that doesn’t take itself seriously.
If you suspend the idea that this is a Baja Bug, you’ll find that there’s something incredibly charming about this version of the Beetle. Maybe it’s the extra ride height solely for the sake of the aesthetics, maybe it’s the faux skid plates. Or possibly it’s the orange stitching or the Sandstorm Yellow dashboard insert on the inside, but when you look at the car or settle into one of the cross-stitched cloth seats, there’s some actual humor and joy to it. The standard Volkswagen Beetle’s austerity is missing here; this is a Beetle that doesn’t take itself seriously.
When it goes on sale as a coupe this spring (the convertible version will be available later in the year), it will start at $23,995 with features like VW’s excellent MIB II infotainment system and post-collision braking system as standard. That makes the Beetle a pretty good value for money, though admittedly the Golf still remains the better option for practical transport. The Beetle still lacks the earnest, high-value appeal of the original, but at least in Dune spec it regains some of its character. To the kind of people who are considering buying a new Beetle, having character matters, and for that reason the Dune is the best in the lineup to buy.