I’ll be man enough and admit a long-standing fascination for the Beetle. My mum reminds me that as a boy I would point and squeal with delight at every passing one. Years later, my final year engineering project was to be the restoration of a Beetle; I even found a wreck, but my college professors would have none of it. And when I moved into my own pad, my sister painted a life-size Herbie on the wall outside my door. Explains why I happily submitted to a 36-hour journey across oceans and continents to Puebla, to VW’s largest factory outside of Wolfsburg and home, since 1967, of the Beetle.
1.7 million Beetles were produced at Puebla, for export but mostly for local consumption. Even though production ended in 2003, Beetles are everywhere in Mexico and I’m told until three years ago there were close to 100,000 Beetle taxis plying in Mexico City. Only a decree by the mayor banning two door cars led to demand finally dying out and the last Volkswagen Sedan (as it was called before the Beetle name gained currency), unit number 21,529,464 (taking Beetle production all over the world into account), rolled off the lines at Puebla. Those final edition cars, limited to 2999 units, wore commemorative Sedan Última Edición badging (final edition in Spanish) and were festooned with retro cues and whitewalled tyres.
It’s one of those light aquaris blue cars I spy tucked away in the corner of VW’s biggest dealership in Puebla. Talk immediately shifts to the classic Beetle, to prices of used ones (1000 US dollars for a very good example), serviceability (anybody with a wrench and hammer can sort it out) and worryingly serious talk about shipping a few back to India (which, worryingly, hasn’t died down). Much por favour and mucho gracias later the staff agrees to let us drive their bosses pride and joy on the way to Atlixco the next day, and happy with our powers of persuasion we head off to sample some very nice local tequila.
Driving in Mexico is no fun. Traffic is horrendous, even making Mumbai seem like a walk in the park, the aggression reminds me of Delhi and the bus drivers are worse than those in Kerala. And nobody shies away from the horn. Luckily traffic thins out on the highway to Atlixco, a road that offers glorious views of the Popocatepetl volcano.
I start off in the new car, technically the second generation of the new Beetle, in full-fat Turbo trim with the 2.0-litre TSI engine and sixspeed DSG transmission. Based on the chassis of the sixth generation Golf (which also underpins the Jetta) the new Beetle is longer and wider than the outgoing one. It adds up to properly sorted dynamics – flat cornering, excellent front-end bite, and nimble road manners. The steering feels better and there is more space in the car, all in all a marked improvement over the previous gen new Beetle that was more style than substance. However this is not a practical car – rear headroom is rather compromised, there’s a very small boot and the ride quality is rather firm, without the polish we’ve come to expect from modern VW’s.
The 2.0 TSI engine, similar to what resides under the hood of the Golf GTI whips up 210bhp of power which translates into a 7.5 second 0-100kmph time and a top speed of 222kmph. It’s a rather serious motor for a happy-go-lucky car and India-spec cars will make do with the calmer 1.4-litre TSI engine. With 148bhp of power it is still good for a 0-100kmph time of 8.5 seconds and it will, of course, be mated to a DSG gearbox.
Half an hour into our drive, we pull over to admire the Popocatepetl volcano and that gives us a chance to also admire the new Beetle which is now more grown up, more confident. Its predecessor, that sold 650 units in India five years ago, was way too feminine, particularly with a flowerpot on the dash. A few years ago I drove a white Beetle Cabrio over the St. Bernard Pass and I almost died of embarrassment when we put the top down in Milan and drew questioning stares. No such worries with the new one – the flowerpot is gone, along with the feminine visage. Yet it remains a happy little car with the egg-shaped profile and curves in all the right places. Which are everywhere! This GSR version gets slightly more aggressive bumpers and a huge washbasin of a rear spoiler but that seems a bit too contrived if I’m being honest, unlike the Última Edición that is pure simplicity.
It’s understandable for us Indians to swoon over the classic Beetle, but even the Mexicans, who have no dearth of them Bugs, retain a fondness for the Vocho as it is called in Mexico – especially the last of the line. The colour, chrome trims, white-walled tyres and special Wolfsburg emblems all signal this is a collector’s piece, commanding values north of 15,000 US dollars these days. And even though this was made in 2003, it is not far removed from Ferdinand Porsche’s original. Porsche himself was inspired by Hans Ledwinka’s prewar Tatra T97, the Czech company even getting compensated for the ‘inspiration’ to such an extent that the fledgling VW couldn’t invest anything into upgrading the Beetle. Hence 2.1 million Beetles over seven decades, all staying true to the original.
Mexican Beetles were launched with the 1.3-litre engine – seven of them entered in the Carrera Panamericana road race and all completed the grueling rally, the achievement helping launch the car. Soon the motor was upgraded to the 1.6 and then in the early 90’s it got fuel injection, a cat-con and electronic ignition, mostly to deal with increasingly stringent emission norms. The output however remained 44bhp while the gearbox stuck with four speeds. And, as you can imagine, it doesn’t get anywhere in any hurry. At idle, it is silent enough but get a move on and that air-cooled engine fills the cabin with its characteristic boxer warble. It’s endearing on our short drive but I can also imagine it getting rather tiresome day in and day out, as can the gearshift. There’s not much in the way of torque and when a hint of a slope presents itself you’d best downshift from fourth. The brakes aren’t bad, with discs up front, but the handling is, well, interesting and the pedals are offset. That interesting handling would go on to become a characteristic trait of the Porsche 356 and 911, both of which were spawned off the Beetle platform.
The interiors are endearing – there’s a moulded plastic steering wheel, surprisingly comfy seats, a CD player and a single large speedo marked optimistically to 160kmph.
You keep yourself cool by winding down the windows and space at the back is hardly accommodating though you still see five Mexicans crammed into it, all their luggage strapped on to a roof carrier. Its dash with body colored appliques for the glove compartment has also inspired the new Beetle’s flat glove box lid, which is painted in body colors on lower variants and even feels similarly cheap. But that’s where the similarities end. And that’s a good thing.
In 1974 Beetle production ended in Germany, replaced by a radically different car – a car that had its engine in the front and drive sent to the front wheels. Today the Golf is on its sixth generation, is one of the best-selling VW nameplates and has loaned its mechanical platform to the new Beetle to recreate what, inarguably, is one of the most iconic cars ever. It is not a people’s car anymore (expect pricing around 30 lakh when launched in India later this year), it does not have its luggage compartment in the nose and it will not struggle up hills or round corners. But it does one thing exceptionally well. And that’s putting a smile on your face.