Beetle rides on its heritage

VW Beetle.
VW Beetle.

Martin Love takes an early look at the new VW Beetle.

Certain cars wrap themselves around your heart and no matter how many kilometres you drive, you never forget them. Same for songs, lovers, films ...

The first VW Beetle I travelled in belonged to Birgit, my friend's German mother. It must have been 35 years ago, but I can picture that car so clearly. It was biscuity beige with woven plastic seats. I can still hear that distinctive rasp from its rear-mounted engine and Birgit cursing in German as she wrestled with its knackered gears.

One day she turned to us in the back and said: "Listen, boys, when you are married, if there is ever anything strange you want to do in the bedroom, don't ask your wife ..." We sat in silence as her voice trailed off. A few minutes later I saw her wipe a tear from her cheek.

It seems like another life, but the latest Beetle VW has just launched in the UK to replace the New Beetle of 1998 (that in turn replaced the original Beetle of 1938) is so reminiscent of the original that anyone over the age of about 30 will soon be accelerating straight down memory lane.

The car is such a return to form that when I first fired up the 118kW TSi petrol engine I was amazed it didn't rattle the windows with that familiar old clatter. To be honest I was a little disappointed, too.

Retro cars are big business these days - just look at the Fiat 500 and the Mini - but we mustn't let nostalgia confuse the picture.

The old cars these new vehicles replace share a name and a cultural identity with their ancestors, but that's as far as it goes. These newbies are safe, usable, reliable and comfortable, while their progenitors were little more than gussied-up death traps.

Before you throw away your Janis Joplin tape and flush the LSD down the toilet, you'll be pleased to hear the new Beetle brilliantly captures the spirit of Herbie and Woodstock while also packing plenty to convert a new generation of Beetlemaniacs.

More than 22.5 million Beetles have been sold - it's the third most successful car of all time, behind the VW Golf and Toyota Corolla. So this new design has some big shoes to fill.

It's front-engined, front-wheel driven, and has three doors and four seats. It's longer, wider and lower than the outgoing model, but it is also sportier and more masculine.

There's no sign of that "bud vase". The bonnet and roof lines are less curved and the windscreen is inclined at a much steeper angle - which harks back to the flat screens of the old cars. The new car has also achieved a 5-star safety rating and comes with a choice of three petrol or two diesel engines. I drove the 1.4-litre Sport, which packed more vim and verve into its handling than you should rightfully expect from a bunch-backed Beetle.

There are so many faithful design points - from the top-hinged glovebox to the running boards and hooded lights - that you feel the car has been created by a bunch of sun-kissed old hippies with the Love Bug ringtone on their phones.

VW NZ is yet to set specifications and pricing for the Beetle here, but has confirmed to Driven that the first cars should arrive at the end of this year, with the full line-up in early 2013.

-Observer

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