The modern Volkswagen Beetle (1997-2011) has always been perceived as a styling exercise. Unlike the original Porsche-designed Beetle launched in 1938, the new car was simply built to satisfy the need and desire for motoring nostalgia. The new Beetle's engine was in the front; not the rear. It was water-cooled; not air-cooled and it was front-wheel drive; not rear-wheel drive!
Using Golf underpinnings, Volkswagen delivered a cute homage to the hugely popular 'Bug' that, while pretty, lacked substance and dynamism. The second-generation '21st Century' Beetle is based on the current Golf (VI) and is much sharper looking - so can it be dynamic too?
The exterior changes from the 1997 car are significant. It's wider, longer and the wheelbase has stretched a little. The roofline is flatter and lower plus the glass area is also reduced. This gives an almost 'chop' custom car look to the silhouette. The flatter windscreen is set further back along the body and this changes the car's proportions for the better. Beetle now looks like a truer, more modern interpretation of the classic number 53 racer, a.k.a. Herbie, which kids of all ages love.
Inside the strict four-seater the cabin is now a much nicer place. The massive dashboard has been reduced in size and the overall ergonomics have improved. The old dashboard was ridiculously big due to the forward-set windscreen and I once saw a driver - who was oblivious to my dropped-jaw stare - with a Yorkshire terrier happily walking back and forth across the dash!
A cool touch to the new car is the Fender car stereo – yes, the famous guitar maker has put its name to the stereo. The hatchback's boot is adequate and if you fold the rear seats down there is decent space available. The large doors give good access as they don't have window frames. The rear is snug and best used by the kids. Bluetooth was not fitted as standard in my test car and this is unacceptable these days.
On the road the 21st century Beetle is a refined machine that is easy to spend time in. It has vastly better handling than the outgoing machine but is still short of being compared to a GTi - more enthusiastic driving isn't rewarded. The suspension in my 160bhp, 1.4-litre petrol powered test car is a little disappointing. On some of my favoured twisty test routes the car failed to encourage brisk progress. Even the old enemy, 'speed humps', required a quite significant drop in speed in order to make the rear suspension something you could live with. So forget driving the standard car like Herbie and think of it as an everyday hatchback and you will not be disappointed.
Ferdinand Porsche's Beetle is an iconic car with almost 22 million cars built, plus it has a great historic tie to Ireland as the first country to produce the car outside of Germany. The modern version has been less than a global phenomenon. The latest Beetle looks great but can't hope to be as significant as the original. What it does do, however, is allow owners celebrate classic design in an endearing way.
The styling changes do enough to make the latest Beetle a very desirable car. With the new 21st century Beetle nostalgia clearly isn't what it used to be… It's better!