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After 30 years, then 20 more, Volkswagen kills the Beetle (again)

Published in blog.hemmings.com

2019 Volkswagen Beetle Final Edition convertibles, in SE (left) and SEL trims. Photos courtesy Volkswagen of America, Inc., unless otherwise noted.

The original Volkswagen Beetle was the symbol of a generation, so beloved that VW revived the model after a two-decade absence to rekindle consumer passion for the brand. The New Beetle arrived as a 1998 model, and was replaced by the newest evolution, the A5 Beetle, in 2012. Now, after a 20-year run, Volkswagen has (once more) announced the end of Beetle production for July 2019.

By the early 1990s, Volkswagen had lost its way in the United States market. As Phil Patton relates in Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World’s Most Famous Automobile, sales were down — dropping as low as 50,000 units in 1993 — and quality control of Mexican-built Golf and Jetta models was a major problem. German Volkswagen executives even discussed pulling out of the American market, but some within the U.S. organization — namely, California studio design head J Mays — knew that the path to the company’s future could be found in its past.

Mays, along with designer Freeman Thomas, believed that resurrecting the iconic Volkswagen Beetle could right Volkswagen’s sinking ship in the United States market. In mid-1992, Mays traveled to Ingolstadt, Germany, for a secret meeting about the Beetle revival with his former boss at Audi, Hartmut Warkuss. Shown the drawings of the car, Warkuss agreed to fund the creation of a quarter-scale model, on the condition that the project be kept under wraps. No one on the U.S. executive team was to know about the project.

In late 1992, things began to fall into place. VW’s Board of Directors replaced Carl Hahn (who was forced to retire on January 1, 1993) with Ferdinand Piëch, already the head of Audi. Piëch, in turn, appointed Warkuss as Volkswagen’s new head of design, and Mays received approval to construct a fiberglass model of his Beetle design. Called the Concept One, the fiberglass model was flown to Germany for review in September 1993; after careful consideration, Piëch granted his approval to proceed with the project.

Less than four months later, the Concept One was revealed at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show to great fanfare and marketing hype. Billboards went up across the country, proclaiming the Concept One a future model, and orders from consumers — some with deposit checks — began to pour in. Mays and Thomas had been correct with their assumption, and production was formally approved in mid-1995.

The New Beetle debuted in 1998, built upon the PQ34 platform shared with the Golf Mk. 4, the Audi A3, and the Audi TT. Aside from its overall shape and a few nostalgic design traits (distinct fenders front and rear, rocker panels styled to resemble running boards, round taillamps, a single-gauge instrument cluster, and a bud vase), the New Beetle shared nothing with the model it resurrected. Unlike the air-cooled, rear-engine original, the New Beetle’s water-cooled engine sat up front, powering the front wheels instead of the rear. Like the original, however, it remained an affordable car, and in 1999 — its first full year — American consumers purchased nearly 83,500 New Beetles.

In 2003, the New Beetle Convertible joined the lineup, replacing the outgoing, Golf-based Cabrio. Over its 13-year production run, the New Beetle was available to American consumers with everything from a fuel-sipping, 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder (or, until 2006, a 1.9-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel) to a raucous 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 180 hp, but Volkswagen reserved its best New Beetle for European customers.

Beetle RSi

2001 Beetle RSi, custom ordered in blue by Ferdinand Piëch. Photo by Ronan Glon.

Launched in 2001, the Beetle RSi was powered by a 3.2-liter VR6 engine rated at 225 horsepower and mated to a six-speed, close-ratio manual transmission. Courtesy of Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, power was sent to all four wheels, while uprated brakes, a sport-tuned suspension, and 18-inch OZ Superturismo wheels shod with 235/40ZR-18 tires made sure the RSi was a capable cornerer. Just 250 examples were built from 2001-’03, with all but one finished in silver (the lone dissenting example, sprayed in blue, was custom-ordered by Ferdinand Piëch). Cost was the primary reason that the Beetle RSi wasn’t offered on these shores, as the car was said to be nearly as expensive as a base Porsche 911.

U.S. sales of the New Beetle began a steady decline, and in 2011, the same year the latest variant was introduced, just under 6,500 were purchased. Though the New Beetle had achieved its mission, its replacement, the A5 Beetle (built atop the PQ35 platform shared with the current Jetta), looked to distance itself from its cute-and-cartoonish predecessor. Less “arched” than the New Beetle, the A5 was longer, lower and wider, with a generous increase in cargo space, yet there was no mistaking it for anything other than a Volkswagen Beetle.

In 2012, the A5 Beetle found a home with 29,174 U.S. consumers, while the launch of the convertible version in 2013 drove sales to 43,134 units. It was the high point for the model, and by 2017 sales had fallen to just 15,166 units, including coupes and drop-tops. According to contemporary automaker logic, cars are out while SUVs and crossovers are in, and Volkswagen’s future product plans (which include an electric-powered revival of the Type 2 bus) rely heavily on both, as well as on battery-electric vehicles. The writing for the Beetle was on the wall in March, when Frank Welsch, VW’s head of technical development, proclaimed that the A5 would be the Beetle’s final generation.

Volkswagen made this official on September 13, declaring that A5 Beetle production would cease next summer. Perhaps to soften the blow, Hinrich J. Woebcken, president and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., stated the following regarding the Beetle’s demise:

The loss of the Beetle after three generations, over nearly seven decades, will evoke a host of emotions from the Beetle’s many devoted fans. As we move to being a full-line, family-focused automaker in the U.S. and ramp up our electrification strategy with the MEB platform, there are no immediate plans to replace it. But as we have seen with the I.D. BUZZ—which is the modern and practical interpretation of the legendary Bus—I would also say, ‘Never say never.’ We’re excited to kick off a year of celebrating one of the true icons of the automotive world, with a series of events that will culminate in the end of production in Puebla in July 2019.

2019 VW Beetle Final Edition

2019 VW Beetle Final Edition coupes.

Volkswagen is sending the A5 Beetle off with the special editions seen here, available in both coupe and cabriolet versions and a color palate that includes Safari Uni, Stonewashed Blue, Pure White, Deep Black Pearl, and Platinum Grey. All come powered by a 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged engine, rated at 174 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, though a six-speed automatic is the sole transmission choice.

Is Volkswagen making the right decision by killing off the Beetle? Will consumers embrace nostalgia again, this time with a battery-powered VW Bus? These questions will certainly be answered in the coming years.