The Buzz of a New Bug

VW brings back the Beetle. But it's not the insect of yesteryear, and buyers line up.

Modern retro fashion bugs some people.

But not Volkswagen.

Its New Beetle is the latest in a string of retro cars that mimic European classics, but it's the first one that's affordable for the creative, trendy types who crave them.

It's also the second in a new line of cars intended to move Volkswagen (VW) up-market - to the cachet of other luxury European imports.

You see, this Beetle is no "people's car." Starting at $15,700, including destination charge, it's more of a relatively affordable status symbol.

The new Bug asks nostalgic buyers to sacrifice very little. It's every inch a car for the '90s, with standard front and side-impact air bags, front-wheel-drive, power locks and mirrors, and optional CD changer.

In looks, it's a playful caricature of the original - the old Beetle backwards. The engine's no longer in the trunk; it's up front. The rear's a hatchback, accessing a cargo area that looks no bigger than the old Bug's front trunk.

The interior goes upscale and artsy, with touches of the old Bug.

Next to the steering wheel sits a bud vase, a homey touch standard on early Beetles. Passenger grab handles also mimic the old car: simple rubber loop straps on the door pillars and a bar above the glove box. Like the original, the gauges cluster into a single dial: speedometer, fuel, even tachometer.

Otherwise, the interior looks anything but old fashioned. A rounded dashboard stretches forward to the windshield - more like a minivan than the old "flat-dash" Beetle - and houses dual air bags.

In contrast, the steering wheel and hand brake sport high-tech, aluminum accents. A unique stereo-cassette deck blends with the artsy, high-tech atmosphere but includes a cluster of tiny knobs that are next to impossible to use while driving.

The front seats are roomy and comfortable - much more so than the old Beetle. Front seat belts adjust to the passenger height, with seats that ratchet up and down and offer the first standard side air bags in the class.

Rear passengers are less fortunate - maybe even more cramped than in the old car. An arching roof line collides even with the heads of shorter passengers. Legroom is generous for a small two-door, but the back is best for kids.

That likely will dissuade few customers, however.

Whether you're watching, sitting, or driving it, the New Beetle says, "Come play with me!"

In this age of aerodynamically sculpted look-alikes, this one looks like nothing else. Passersby stop, poke, prod, and reminisce about the Beetle's quirky, adorable charm.

It began as a design study by VW's California design studio and drew raves at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. One buyer sent her check that week.

Germans associated the old Beetle with the austerity of wartime - the VW was Hitler's "people's car" - and aren't interested. But for Americans, it recalls simpler times.

For half the price of a Detroit barge, in the 1960s, Americans could buy a Bug. Slow but spry, it delivered twice the gas mileage and handled like a sports car.

The New Beetle shed the underdog status but should win buyers with a cool image and good value.

The car gets its structure from next year's VW Golf, already on sale in Europe, with rock-stable handling, comfy suspension, and eager engine.

The turbo-diesel engine option delivers more thrust, costs $1,275 more, and returns 41/48 (city/highway) miles per gallon. Gas Beetles boast 23/29 ratings.

The diesel feels better on the road, more relaxed and punchier when you stab the accelerator. Noise levels are virtually the same.

Either engine can hook up to a modern four-speed automatic transmission. Next year, the Bug will swat the competition with a turbocharged gasoline engine from Audi.

The Beetle lands in showrooms in April, and some dealers are sold out for months. So you may pay a premium for a place in line.

Ironically, that's where the New Beetle finds its real niche: Attracting fashion-conscious trendsetters to dealerships.

As the company works to improve its cars' spotty repair record, it needs to lure back customers who fondly remember its longest-lasting products - the 21 million Beetles made over the past 60 years.

* Comments to:

evarts@csmonitor.com

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