HERNDON, VA — Volkswagen has ditched the flower vase on the dashboard of the Beetle.
That may not sound like a big deal. It's not as if the German auto maker eliminated the steering wheel of the redesigned '12 car that goes on sale in October.
But tossing the vase is part of VW's overall efforts to draw more male buyers to the Beetle. More important than taking something away, VW says its designers and engineers put much energy into making the little car look and feel “more masculine.”
In many respects, their efforts have paid off. The third-generation car not only looks different than its predecessor, it drives differently, with more horsepower and bolder dynamics.
Since its 1998 introduction, the outgoing second-generation “New Beetle” had garnered a reputation and sales record as a “girl” car. Back then, VW called the bud vase on the dash “a cheerful accent.” It was a cute touch. But the unintended consequence was that many male buyers wouldn't touch the car.
Dale Smith, general manager of Village VW in Chattanooga, TN, says a male customer told him, “I am not driving a car with a flower vase.”
Post-vase, the '12 Beetle is wider, longer, lower to the ground and beefier. The hood is larger and windshield steeper, with the A-pillar pushed back. Stylists flattened the roof lines a bit to less resemble a bubble.
Designers faced a right-brain, left-brain dilemma in restyling an iconic car. They wanted to make it look like a Beetle, but not look like a Beetle. They sought to preserve the design cues that make the car so recognizable, yet not become prisoners of the past.
VW touts the finished product as a “reinvented” car, a modern interpretation of a venerable model that dates to 1938.
“We wanted to catch up with the icon, making it sportier and with solid driving dynamics,” Rainer Michel, VW of America's vice president-product marketing and strategy, tells WardsAuto.
The car still comes with a standard 2.5L engine. But the new one produces 170 hp, up from 150. VW now offers the Beetle with an optional 2L 4-cyl. turbocharged engine “to attract a wider audience,” VW spokesman Cory Proffitt says. A turbo briefly was available on '01 and '02 models.
The Beetle began life 73 years ago in Germany as a “people's car.” It had mass appeal in the U.S., too, after VW started importing it in 1949. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it reigned as America's top import car.
VW isn't expecting the new Beetle will regain that title. But it is considered a major player in the brand's 11-vehicle lineup, says Tim Mahoney, VWA's chief product-marketing manager.
“It really is an important model that showcases VW's heritage and origins, without living in the past,” he tells WardsAuto. “This is a modern car for today's consumers. It will elicit lots of emotions.”
And lots of customers, VW hopes. Beetle deliveries are not expected to match those of the brand's popular Jetta sedan, which saw sales of 123,213 units last year. But the auto maker expects to sell more Beetles than before.
Mahoney declines to name a number. “I'll give the standard marketing-guy answer and say, ‘We'll sell as many as we can.’”
VW delivered 16,537 Beetles in the U.S. in 2010, according to WardsAuto data. Over seven decades, the Beetle has sold more than 22.5 million units worldwide, 5 million in the U.S.
Before the era of the vase, Beetle ownership easily crossed gender lines. The car once appealed to all sorts of buyers, from beach bums to young couples to pensioners.
“Everyone has a Beetle story,” Mahoney says. “I remember riding in one as a kid in the 1960s with a wacky aunt who would drive us out to a country roadside stand to buy eggs. I have later recollections as a college kid on a road trip in a Beetle.”
Some memory lanes opened when the '12 model debuted at the New York auto show in April. “This one guy with a white beard came up to me with tears in his eyes and talked about his old Beetle,” Michel says.
So, VW marketers will push some nostalgia buttons during an ad campaign that starts on prime-time TV and migrates to digital. A simple tagline proclaims, “It's Back.”
Another upcoming spot shows the car boldly emerging from a tunnel. The tagline: “It's a Boy.” The underlying message and targeted audience seem clear.
Focus group members, male and female, liked the Beetle's new look, functionality and comfort level, Mahoney says. “Some of the guys said, ‘I'm not sure I can drive a car with a flower vase, but I can drive this.’”
The drive characteristics of the car are impressive. The wider stance and reworked suspension provide stability and agility on a media drive in Virginia and West Virginia.
The naturally aspirated 2.5L engine seems slightly more responsive than the optional 2.0L engine, which is pleasantly throaty but shows a trace of turbo lag during quick accelerations. VW will offer a diesel engine in the Beetle next year.
The auto maker rightfully touts the Beetle's German engineering, although actual manufacturing is in Mexico.
Prices range from $18,995 for the base model with manual transmission to $29,095 for the turbo version with automatic transmission, sunroof, spoiler and upscale interior. The destination charge is $770.
Smith, the Chattanooga dealer, is fixing to sell a lot of Beetles. “I think it will be a real hit,” he says. “It will be a car a male will drive.”
In 1964, the Beetle had 5% of the American car market, says VW spokesman Scott Vazin. Last year, its market share was 0.3%. VW has a long way to go before it recaptures its glory days in the U.S.
But the auto maker determinedly plans to increase sales of the Beetle and other products in its lineup, from the Touareg cross/utility vehicle to the '12 Passat midsize sedan, which also just underwent a redesign and goes on sale in October.
Everyone might not appreciate VW's resolve. “As a brand, we are doing a lot better than some people give us credit for,” says Marc Trahan, VWA's executive vice president-quality.