Bugged again by Volkswagen

January 15, 1998

An excerpt of an Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal editorial Friday

DROP this name at a party: VW Bug. Anyone who ever owned one will immediately launch into an animated retelling of the Volkswagen Beetle's legendary idiosyncrasies. For starters, you didn't need an ignition key so long as you had a slight incline nearby -- say, the ramp of a driveway. Get it rolling, hop in, pop the clutch and you were gone.

The cars ran forever on only a few dollars' gasoline. There was rarely a parking space so tiny you couldn't squeeeeze your Bug into it. And, oh, those heaters. You dared not loosen your mittens in winter; its puny furnace was no match for the teeth-chattering chill that would beset you. Ah, the VW Bug.

A big gamble

It is precisely those sorts of recollections that Volkswagen of America Inc. hopes to cash in on in reintroducing its famous runabout, which hasn't been sold new in the United States for two decades. It's a big gamble. Baby boomers have proved willing to spend on romanticized memories, but the '90s Bug isn't exactly the Bug that former owners recall.

The engine, for openers, is under the hood in front, not in back. Then there's the price -- $15,200 to start, with enough options to drive that up over $21,000. The New Beetle -- its official name -- is actually a VW Golf chassis with a bubble-shaped body of molded-plastic fenders, front-wheel drive, four-wheel disc brakes and a corporate yearning to trigger an aging generation's collective psyche.

VW, in unveiling the new Bug last week, said it hoped to sell 50,000 in the United States this year. At its mid-'70s peak, Volkswagen had some half-million units on U.S. roads.

The Bug was created as part of the Nazi effort to work Germany out of economic depression with an affordable means of transport. That idea -- a set of wheels that got the job done, without anything fancy -- helped explain its mass appeal. But this '90s Bug? The carmaker's gamble is whether U.S. consumers will accept a vehicle whose main link to its past is its name.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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