Of all the associations that come to mind at the mention of Volkswagen's iconic Beetle, the word "masculine" doesn't top the list, nor even crack it.
Bulbous and cutesy with a flower vase built into its dash, the New Beetle – introduced in 1998 after the bug's first redesign since its 1938 launch – wasn't long hatched before the North American market deemed it a "chick car."
The German auto maker's latest iteration of the storied coupe, though, is fast molting that image. A hook designed to attract specific bait, the Beetle, overhauled for 2012, has been reeling in a quantity of male buyers not seen since the model's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
What's grabbing them? The 21st-century Beetle (VW dropped the word 'New' from its moniker) is sportier with what VW calls a "track-inspired" look and more available horsepower than before. Built on a Jetta platform rather than the smaller Golf chassis the second-generation model borrowed from, the body is deliberately reminiscent of Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche's original design, which marked its 76th anniversary on Feb. 26. Today's model is longer, lower and wider than its predecessor, with an elongated hood, up to 19-inch wheels and a refreshed, sleek roofline that hints at power rather than flowers. The base coupe come standard with a 2.5-litre, 170-hp engine, but both TDI and turbo-charged 2.0-litre, 210-horsepower versions can also be had.
Male buyers in both Canada and the United States have taken note. In Canada, VW has recorded a 30 per cent increase in male buyers since the third-generation Beetle launched in late 2011. In the United States, where car registration data is nationally tracked, the Beetle has slipped markedly from its 2010 rank as the car most likely to be purchased by females. That year, only 39 per cent of Beetles bought in America were registered to male drivers, according to Polk data. In contrast, during the first five months the 2012 model was available, nearly half of the vehicles sold in the America were purchased by men.
Now, the Beetle buyer group has stabilized at a more balanced point – 46 per cent of registrants in 2013 were male – a sign, analysts say, that VW's tweaks have de-feminized the famous Bug.
"They needed to make it more masculine," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior automotive analyst for Edmunds.com. "The Beetle is world-renowned and probably one of the most famous cars on the road. In the '60s and '70s … both men and women embraced the car. It was a cheap mode of transportation. Now, in 2014, that's not really the Beetle's place in the market any more – it's not the car that everybody can afford."
When Porsche, the legendary German car designer, first conceived of what would become the Beetle, his aim was to create an affordable car for mass production. He found an unlikely ally in Chancellor Adolf Hitler who, in 1934, spoke at the Berlin Motor Show about a similar concept. A meeting was arranged and, by 1938, production of the inaugural 23-horsepower model launched in what is now Wolfsburg, Germany.
It wasn't until after the war, in 1945, that Porsche began using the name Volkswagen, which translates to 'people's car'. Around the world, though, it was already 'the Beetle', and demand for imports was mounting.
"In that era, the whole purpose was to make a light, inexpensive, durable, people's car. It was very pure," said Tom Matano, the former general manager of Mazda Design and creator of the RX-7. "You just looked at the shape and you knew what it did," he said.
That combination of practical design and function quickly elevated the Beetle to the everyman's automobile. By the mid-1970s, though, the car's popularity was waning as foreign competition increased and Volkswagen rolled out the Golf (called the Rabbit at first) and then the water-cooled Passat. Although Beetle production continued elsewhere – 21 million first-generation Beetles were produced in all – production ceased in the United States by 1979.
The Bug would lay dormant until the early 1990s, when legendary designers J Mays and Freeman Thomas began carving out a Beetle-inspired concept. Called Concept One, the car was unveiled at the 1994 North American International Auto Show. The retro-themed car borrowed cues from the original Beetle but had a modern feel. It was so well received that VW designed a production model that went on sale in 1998. Built on the larger Golf platform, beneath its sheet metal the New Beetle bore little resemblance to its function-oriented ancestors. That didn't stop people from buying it. In ensuing years, VW kept the model fresh by releasing new trim and colour packages, a Turbo version that attempted a sporty appeal and a Cabriolet.
Over time, though, it became clear that the New Beetle appealed more to women. Its "chick car" status peaked in 2010, when more than 60 per cent of New Beetles purchased were registered to women. That same year, with sales flagging, VW wound down production after 13 years.
"It was never intended to be a "chick car" or a "dude car"," said Thomas Tetzlaff, a spokesman for VW Canada. "The market for the New Beetle shifted noticeably to a more female-skewed audience. Why this was the case is still a mystery – the design of the vehicle was all about the look of the original car with an eye towards modern convenience and function."
Matano, the designer, said that while the New Beetle shouldn't be seen as a failure, its inability to sustain mass market appeal is likely due to its departure from first-generation tenets. "It brought back the image of the Beetle, but the function itself didn't match or back up the design. It wasn't the same car the original Beetle was," he said, adding, "It was a niche model from the beginning."
To prep for the Beetle's third overhaul, head VW designer Klaus Bischoff told reporters at the car's unveiling in a steely Manhattan warehouse that, "We started from scratch. We wanted to make a dynamic, sportier, more masculine car." The marketing campaign that accompanied the roll-out was also deliberately un-girly, kicking off with a Super Bowl ad showing an aggressive black beetle skittering through a forest before its silhouette transformed into the sleek shell of a 21st-century Beetle. The first wave of available 2012s came in the form of a special Black Turbo launch edition.
Mike Levy, a California-based Beetle junkie, bought one online without seeing it in the flesh. The look and added horsepower was the main attraction, he said. "It looked more sporty than the New Beetle and it's much more fun to drive," he said.
At VW, a plan is afoot to ensure the Beetle courts a more balanced buyer group for the long term. The company has rolled out a series of limited special editions (one tied in with guitar-maker Fender, with interior wood trim resembling the finish of the sought-after instruments). It also unveiled its sportiest and most aggressive Beetle yet in January at the Detroit auto show. Called the Beetle Dune Concept, its lines are a nod at its upmarket cousin, Audi's TT RS. Oversized wheels and a narrow, toothy grill are signs of the extra dose of Y chromosomes on board.
It's not clear if the Dune Concept will inspire production of an even meatier Beetle. For now, the new (not New) model is still hitting its mark.
"You should see the front grill. It looks like a Porsche! Doesn't it look like a Porsche?" admirer Mike Sheehan called out to his buddy, Harvey James, during a recent Toronto viewing of the car.
Sitting inside the low-slung ride, James seemed too distracted to answer. "They've tried to make it as sporty as they possibly could," he marvelled, taking in the modern dash. "You could see a guy driving it."
What Women Want
1. Toyota Matrix, 61.17%
2. Nissan Rogue, 57.51%
3. Nissan Juke, 57.17%
4. Scion xD, 56.66%
5. Hyundai Tucson, 56.42%
6. Volkswagen Eos, 56.18%
7. Buick Encore, 54.55%
8. Kia Sportage 54.29%
9. Jeep Compass, 54.23%
10. Toyota RAV4, 54.20%
1. Ferrari 458, 95.14%
2. Audi R8, 91.49%
3. Audi S8, 90.73%
4. Nissan GT-R, 89.40%
5. BMW M5, 89.11%
6. Audi S6, 89.02%
7. Audi S7, 87.77%
8. Chevrolet Corvette, 87.55%
9. GMC Sierra, 87.55%
10. Audi RS 5, 87.46%
Source: Polk data/Edmunds.com
Note: Percentages are based on the gender of the registrant of each vehicle in the U.S. in 2013
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