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REVIEW

For many fans of the gentle Beetle, the love-in is waning

Flower-power appeal and cute quotient may not be enough as Volkswagen delivers the latest low-energy bug.

April 19, 2006|Warren Brown | Washington Post

I was up to no good. But there's only so much wrong you can do in a Volkswagen New Beetle. It looks slow even when it's going fast.

It's the egg shape. I'm convinced. People don't take seriously cars that resemble eggs, and the New Beetle looks like an egg threefold. There is the center portion, the main body of the car. It looks like an egg. There are the wheel wells, front and rear. Both sets mimic eggs.

I was running late for an appointment, scooting out of the Virginia suburbs into the congested mayhem of downtown D.C. I was going to drive aggressively, but I had no plans to run red lights or disobey stop signs. The idea was to drive at top allowable speeds, to prevent anyone from cutting in front of me, to hustle for every inch of road. I had to get there!

I did.

It was odd.

I didn't cut in front of anyone. Nor did anyone cut in front of me. Other motorists allowed me to move ahead. Some smiled the way adult children smile at aging parents behaving badly. I was a sight -- an uptight, bespectacled, gray-haired man racing around in a salsa-red 2006 Volkswagen New Beetle 2.5 coupe.

Occasionally, I revved the New Beetle's engine. I use the term "revved" advisedly. It's a 2.5-liter, in-line five-cylinder gasoline engine with a maximum 150 horsepower. When you stomp the clutch, push the accelerator and shift gears, the motorized egg moves. But, let's face it: We aren't talking about the supernatural, speed-possessed '60s Beetle of "Herbie" movie fame.

Nope. The New Beetle 2.5 coupe -- a bulbous front-engine, front-wheel-drive iteration of its rear-engine, rear-wheeldrive predecessor -- putters passionately. With a base price of $17,180, it evokes memories of the pony train in the child's tale "The Little Engine That Could."

Revv-v-vv. "I think I can, I think I can.... "

And the New Beetle -- introduced in 1998 on the Volkswagen Golf platform, and so named to distinguish it from the old Beetle -- could

But it was no threat to faster cars. There was nothing intimidating about it. Volkswagen's marketers are aware of this, which is why they now advertise the New Beetle as "a force for good."

"Beetle people," as Volkswagen calls them, do not drive aggressively. They are gentle, caring, residual flower children -- baby boomers obsessed with the feel-good karma of the 1960s and younger folks, mostly women, who want to embrace and be embraced by a kinder, gentler world.

"Beetle people smile more often than other drivers," the Volkswagen pitch says. "They talk to their plants."

Compare that approach with the one the company uses to sell its 200-horsepower hot-rod GTI MkV. That car comes with an ugly, devilish mascot that Volkswagen calls the "Fast."

The idea, of course, is that you can get your "Fast" on in the sporty GTI MkV. But the Fast gremlin and its suggested behavior are inappropriate in the four-seat, flower-vase-on-dashboard New Beetle.

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that the New Beetle, hailed as the rebirth of Volkswagen's Love Bug at its introduction, now is selling poorly. It is a friendly car in a decidedly unfriendly world, which renders it odd, comic, passe.

That it has survived this long -- practically unchanged since 1998 -- is something of a miracle. But even miracles run their course. This one is near the finish line.

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