While Volkswagen announced recently that it would bring two new Beetle concepts to the New York Auto Show, the future of the Volkswagen Beetle itself it a bit up in the air. It shares a platform with several other Volkswagens in the lineup, and while it’s quite a good little car, the only real advantage it has over an Eos or Golf is how it looks. Ultimately though, styling has to evolve and change, and as much as people still love the classic design of the original Beetle, figuring out what direction to take the current Beetle may require a more radical departure from the classic look than fans are comfortable with.
That does raise the question though, “What is the Volkswagen Beetle?” Is the Beetle defined by a look? If so, perhaps it’s time for Volkswagen to take a break from the Beetle and bring the look back every 10 years or 15 years as a limited model. Is it a small, basic economy car? In that case, perhaps the next Beetle is already here in the form of the Volkswagen Up! that’s been on sale for a few years.
If you look at the old Beetle though, what stands out more than the look is probably the layout. If you want to buy a basic subcompact these days, the formula is pretty universal. The engine goes in the front and sends the power to the front wheels. The driver and passengers sit behind the engine, and behind the passenger compartment, there is a trunk for luggage or groceries.
Whether you’re buying a Ford Fiesta, a Volkswagen Polo, or a Toyota Yaris, that’s how they’re all arranged. The Volkswagen Beetle, on the other hand, was arranged exactly the opposite way. The trunk was in the front, the passengers sat in the middle, the engine was behind the passenger compartment, and the power went to the rear wheels. It’s a rare layout these days, but it’s actually not completely dead.
Can you name a current car that is also an inexpensive and fuel-efficient two door with an engine in the back and power going to the rear wheels?
If you guessed the Smart ForTwo, congratulations! You’re exactly right. You might not look at the little ForTwo and immediately think, “Hey, that’s basically a Beetle,” but if you think of the Beetle as less of a look, it all starts to make more sense. The only question is, how did we all miss it? Why didn’t millions of Beetle fans rush out to buy the ForTwo the second it his American shores?
Obviously, there are some differences other than look between the Smart ForTwo and the original Volkswagen Beetle. There’s no back seat in the ForTwo, there’s also no trunk, and it’s not air-cooled. Whether those things are integral to the Beetle being a Beetle is up to you. Personally, I’d argue that the lack of a back seat and a trunk are more important than the engine being air-cooled, but beggars can’t be choosers. Air cooling simplifies repairs and makes construction cheaper, but having overheated an air cooled motorcycle in rush hour traffic before, the added complexity and cost is totally worth adding liquid cooling.
A rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, economy car though is such a rare thing these days, especially in the U.S. market, that differences over cooling and trunk space seem trivial. Even the larger Smart ForFour is front-engined and front wheel drive, and that’s not sold in the U.S. Over here, the ForTwo truly is in a league of its own.
Sadly, even as extremely affordable, infinitely parkable, city transportation, the ForTwo never really took off on this side of the Atlantic. Major complaints about the jerky transmission made it uncomfortable to drive, while the gas mileage was never amazing enough to make up for its diminutive size and slow acceleration. You still see them every now and then in cities like Boston and New York though. Plus there’s a new version coming towards the end of 2015 that promises to be better than the previous version in almost every way. Will it be a major sales success? Who knows.
The Volkswagen Beetle still marches on though, even with its future uncertain. Will Volkswagen’s two concepts at the New York Auto Show reveal a new generation that returns to the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout? Will there finally be a trunk in the front again? Will one be a racing bug based on the Golf R? No one knows for sure, but be on the lookout for what Volkswagen is bringing when the New York Auto Show starts in April.
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