The New Beetle was a round peg trying to fit in a square hole – an homage to a form designed in the thirties for a rear engined car, and forced-fit on a platform designed for square cars like the Jetta and the Golf.
As a result, the New Beetle was heavily compromised – an example of function having to find a way to follow form, the exact opposite of the design philosophy advocated by Dr Porsche when he led the design of the original Beetle. As a result, the headroom at the back was extremely limited, and trivial things like changing a headlight lamp were very complicated, but it was a cute car, with a huge capital of sympathy.
When I first arrived in the US, my company was renting cars for me. Pontiac Grand Prix, Subaru Outback, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protégé, … a different (and somehow dull) car every other month. As my stay in the US was extended (never trust an IT project to be finished on time), it was decided I would have to buy my own car.
Being new to the country, I did not have access to credit, and had to buy whatever I could pay cash, with the allowance the company had given me. I did not want a beige three box design, I wanted a manual hatchback, something that drove like a European car. The Ford Focus and the New Beetle ended on my short list. I did not want to have to deal with conventional car dealers either, and I went to Carmax for a no haggle/no surprise purchase. I drove both cars, liked the New Beetle better, and bought a 4 year old white GLS model – with a 2L engine, a 5 speed manual and a flower vase on the dashboard.
As a 2 door coupe devoid of any sports-car ambition, the Beetle was a good buy – solid road manners, nice engine sound, good gearbox, it was pleasantly finished and very well equipped compared to the cars I had driven in Europe. Our two dogs could fit in the rear compartment, and the car was comfortable and powerful enough for long distance trips.
My co-workers – typical IT guys driving big black Yukons and Tahoes, could not understand why I was driving such a small car, when I could have afforded something more imposing, and after they saw the paper sunflower in the flower vase, they started questioning my sexual orientation.
Besides being supposedly gay friendly, the New Beetle also had the reputation of being unreliable, and that part was well deserved. From the get go, the airbag was temperamental – I brought the car to the VW dealership multiple times – they would keep the car for a few days, strip the interior of the car to the metal and supposedly fix it, but a few thousand miles later the airbag idiot light would be on again. The cable controlling the fuel door also broke rapidly (they all do that), and the car ate headlight and tail light lamps at an alarming rate – sometimes all of them going dark at the same time.
When the car reached the 80,000 mile mark, real trouble started. First the A/C compressor needed replacement. Then the alternator. I don’t remember which one required changing the timing belt, maybe both, but the water pump did not like it and shortly after it exploded inside the engine. My independent mechanic (I had stopped trusting VW dealerships long time ago) flushed the cooling system, but could only recover parts of the water pump impeller – the rest must have been wandering inside the conduits in the cylinder head. It was a time bomb, and I got rid of the car as fast as I could. The next car would have to be something of known reliability – like a Mazda (don’t laugh – the Miata is one of the most reliable cars available today).
There are cars you regret selling, and cars you regret having to get rid of. The Beetle falls into the second category. Cute, original, rather fun to drive (for a non-GTI compact hatchback), I would have liked to keep it, but it was far too unreliable to trust.
I desperately wanted the New Beetle to be better than it was. As a kid my neighbor had a Super Beetle and I was always aware of its iconoclastic nature, even if I couldn’t put it into words yet. I mean, what in the United States of America circa 1980 looked like that? Nothing. And then there was Punch Buggy and the Herbie movies… there was nothing I wanted growing up more than a Bug with a 53 on the front, back, and sides. So when I got older and the Beetle concept came out I was so excited to get one that I called the local VW dealer to find out if they were really going to build it.
Fortunately, as a recent college dropout and new future alcoholic making less than $10 per hour in a restaurant I couldn’t afford it. It was one of the very few times that my alcohol problem saved me from a terrible decision (by making a worse one, but I digress). VWs of that era were grievously unreliable pieces of junk. If you bought one you never stopped paying for it. My mother had a Cabrio manual she bought as a fun car for herself and it ended up being one car for the price of two by the time it mercifully met its end.
But man, it’s still a Beetle. I don’t care that it’s “cute”, or a “chick car”, or any number of derogatory comments applied to it, to this day my heart wants one, but my head won’t let me. Thank God I can occasionally make good decisions. It’s a shame I can’t take the body and drop it on a car that will actually be trouble-free and not fall apart within 5 years.
Who ever changed the timing belt sabotaged your car you always renew the waterpump at the same time, its only a Golf under the retro panels so you cant expect too much.
I wanted to like these when they came out – I even got a brief ride in one when they were a novelty by a friend of a friend who got one. But I could never quite get there. The original bug’s proportions were classic, while the new one’s proportions were tortured. They were certainly unique and carried a personality and I understood how people could like them, but they were not for me. I could have gotten past the visual and conceptual stuff had the car come with Honda-style quality and reliability. Sadly, they did not.
My vote for silliest, most ridiculous vehicle of the past hundred years. That they really were crap is the icing on the cake of poo.
I see fewer and fewer of these on the road now. Didn’t know they were that bad reliability-wise. The later version (which I call the “Squashed Beetle”) I don’t think was a visual improvement.
Retro will become cool again next year with the VW I.D. Buzz:
The update version from around 2012-ish was a huge improvement to my eyes. The Turbo version was almost (almost) Porsche-like I thought.
My son’s fiance’ had one of these and he hated it with such passion that he refused to fix any of the niggly little things like power switches etc. .
I don’t recall it being unreliable , she loved it but he didn’t and refused to maintain it do off it went .
Here in So. Cal. these things litter the junkyards, mostly looking great with shiny paint jobs and good tires/upholstery .
I vaguely recall the very first ‘new Beetles’ were Diesel powered ? .
Too bad VW ag lost it’s way and makes crap apparently now .
This ended about how I expected an ownership review of a 1999 VAG product to end. It’s the type of experience that made VW’s attempt to gain marketshare here very difficult. I mean, it’s a low tech 2-liter four-popper economy car with a stick shift–how hard could it be to make it reasonably reliable?
Anyway, the late-aughts economy VWs seemed to fare better. The second gen New Beetle with the 2.5 liter engine was far less cutsey, the interior a bit more user-friendly, and the dash style paid better homage to the old 60s Bugs. And you could probably get 100,000 trouble free miles out of it and sell it without water pump components running around the engine internals.
I remember seeing this first generation New Beetle in Automobile Magazine in 1994, the cover with Jerry Seinfeld as was mentioned in CC several years ago – https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-european/curbside-capsule-in-ordnung-the-new-beetle-turns-20/ – and I thought that was just so cool.
And then, I began to connect this with VAG’s pretty much bottom of the barrel quality in the late 90s and, well…the bloom was off of that dashboard flower.
But I tend to put this car into the same bin as the new MINI. More style than substance. A car that was built more around an advertising concept than anything else. Not that there’s really anything so unusual about that.
Yep, they did that. VW chose to use archaic bulbs—H1, the world’s first halogen headlight bulb, introduced in 1962; the P21/5W bulbs in the tail lights dated back to the 1950s. There were much longer-lived bulbs readily and cheaply available to VW at the time the New Beetle was being engineered and tooled, but…nope, they used the oldies, short-lived even in their low-performance/long-life versions.
Then they aggravated that issue by opting for a cheap and nasty daytime running light setup of running the headlamps whenever the ignition was on. This makes legal (in North America) but not very effective DRLs, and aside from the much shorter effective lifespan caused by always-on operation, the filaments got hammered with a voltage spike every time the engine was started or stopped.
My wife has an 03 Turbo 1.8, currently at 230000 km. We maintain it well, throw a few grand at it every couple years and it runs nice and belies it’s age. I stripped all the plastic trim from it and removed flexible rubber coating, painted it satin black and beige as original, best Beetle trim you’ll ever see. Done the water pumps, a/c, timing belt etc. Must be close to 10 years in the garage.
When these first came out I was in my thirties, good job and thinking this might be the time to get my first new car. The new beetle in Canada was supposed to have an excellent rust thru warranty and I thought with a diesel engine this could be my very own perpetual motion machine.
The conversation came to a screaming halt when I asked the salesman if there were any incentives or discounts that I would be eligible for. I’ve never forgotten the look he gave me when he loudly pronounced ” this is Volkswagen. We don’t do discounts here. Perhaps something used might be better for your budget”
That put me off new cars for life. So I did buy something used. A nice diesel Jetta from the next closest vw dealer.
When vw got into trouble in later years I had my moments of wanting to look up the same salesman if still there and ask him if vw still didn’t do discounts?
I’d laugh and walk away too, but apparently that can be a successful sales pitch. A good friend of mine, of Salvadorian origin with a heavy accent, was looking at cars one time. Insulted by the salesman’s suggestion he couldn’t afford it he bought an overpriced Tahoe or something. He knew he was getting shafted, but he didn’t care, he needed to prove something. And Jose was a smart guy, he just got his buttons pushed.
My brother’s former wife bought a 2003 New Beetle with automatic gearbox on the spur. For the first few years, the car was nothing but huge headache with frequent mechanical issues, including the stumblings and stallings at highway speed. After the divorce, my brother ended up with New Beetle because she tried to trade it in for a different vehicle. None of the sales centres would take New Beetle in for a trade at “fair value”. My brother tried to sell the car, too, but the car had a quite extensive list of technical service bulletins and likes—that really kills the sale value.
Since my brother got the car for free and for his daughter to drive, he did a lot of research and determined that there were at least two different systems for the North America and for Europe. He gradually replaced many of fuel systems with ones for German market (higher quality and more robust performance—useful for Autobahn cruising). He also upgraded the lighting system, too. To this day, his New Beetle has been very reliable and dependable. If Volkswagen (like Mercedes-Benz with its first-generation ML-Class) had bother to spend at least $500 on better quality for each New Beetle, Volkswagen wouldn’t be in cesspool with the customer perceptions.
“None of the sales centres would take New Beetle in for a trade at “fair value”.”
I know a lady in Calif who needed to buy a new Ford Transit for a new business venture. She had a yellow New Beetle in excellent condition and 200 bucks was the best offer she got ROFL
I think it’s as much a dealer trade in thing. My granddaughter recently got shafted with $400 as the trade in value on her ’04 Ford Escape. Well used, but 4WD, 6 cylinder, decent paint and leather interior with no rips and no immediate needs nor warning lights on. Craigslist would have brought at least $2K in a day, probably $4K in a week, but her parents didn’t want to bother.
To be fair, anything over 5 years old is ancient to new care dealers, it’s not in their business model, but I bet they doubled if not tripled their money wholesaling it off. And the next guy made another $2K.
Hmm, a little late to the party here, but after some teething problems covered by warranty and/or recalls, our 2001 1.8 turbo NB has been fairly reliable after almost 21 years in the family, first with us and now with our daughter. New struts, timing belt along with water pump, a few hoses, and more than a few coolant sensors, but original clutch and other mechanicals, and good upholstery. Mpg quite as low running costs as our Toyota’s but a decent car. White, too. Headlights kinda lame but way to change once you learn how.
I never liked that they were trying so hard to mimic a car that was so very different – not just in concept but also pricing-wise – from the original. I always liked that better with the new 500 – it was priced cheaply like the original. I read a magazine at the time that said the New Beetle was the perfect car for someone who wants a car the size of a Golf with interior spcae like a Polo and a price like a Passat. A completely irrational car, and I guess I should appreciate it for that but I just don’t. It always came off as too calculated a marketing effort.
I don’t mean to judge you or your choices. To each their own. And kudos for going all-out with the sunflower.
Mads, I completely agree. I didn’t like it when it came out either. The MINI was the same, though it seemed to have more to offer. The New Beetle was just such crass exploitation of nostalgia. Also, they are huge. The women (mostly) driving them looked tiny. In the late 90’s I became aware that VW’s with 80,000 miles were living on the edge. To me, where reliability is the base beat of utility, a Toyota or Honda is the place to start. I would love a Matra, or a Lotus, but if I have to drive I want the car to work. In the 70’s I liked Valiant/Darts too.