In 1979, VW stopped selling the Beetle — at least, in the United States.
Uncle would not allow it.
The car designed back in the 1930s could not meet the crashworthiness and emissions standards of the ‘70s.
Plus, there was a lot of very heavy competition from newer and more modern economy cars from Japan.
These may not have had the Beetle’s charm or lawn mower simplicity. But they did have working heaters, among other draws.
In 1998 VW brought the Beetle back but it was a very different Beetle. Not air-cooled, or rear-engined. With heated seats, as well as climate control AC.
It was iconic looking but not classic driving. People loved it—all over again.
But the love waned as the Beetle aged and was once again overtaken by more modern rivals, many of them cheaper.
History does repeat even if the engine isn’t in the same place.
What It Is
The Beetle’s current iteration is basically a Golf, VW’s compact hatchback, with a body that looks like a classic Beetle’s.
Mechanically, the current Beetle shares no common parts with the iconic original Beetle that first appeared back in the ’30s and which VW continued to make and sell in other countries all the way through 2003.
The engine’s up front and it’s water-cooled unlike the original, which was rear-engined and air-cooled. It has six gears instead of just four. And it gets to 60 in less than 30 seconds.
But both the classic and the modern Beetle have one thing in common: They are compact-sized two-doors with instantly recognizable silhouettes that set them apart from the run-of-the-mill.
Base price for a 2019 coupe is $20,895; a top-of-the-line Final Edition SEL stickers for $25,995.
A convertible Beetle is available, too. They list for $25,995 to start — topping out at $29,995 for a Final Edition.
2019 will be the last year for a new Beetle.
To mark The End, a Final Edition version is available. It comes with 17 inch wheels and special interior/exterior trim, including badging, aluminum-trimmed pedals and cloth seats with leather inserts.
All final-year Beetles come standard with the same drivetrain.
The previously optional high-performance engine, the turbodiesel engine and the previously available manual transmission are no longer available.
Looks like a classic Beetle but has all the modern amenities — including dependability.
Three times the power and performance of a classic Beetle.
Hardtop has lots of cargo space for its size.
What’s Not So Good
Lacks the quirky, enduring charm of the original.
All editions are automatic-only.
Convertible has almost no cargo space.
Under The Hood
VW has thinned the engine and transmission herd for the Beetle’s final year.
Regardless of trim or top, all 2019s come with the same 2.0 liter four —mildly turbocharged to 174 horsepower—paired with a six-speed automatic driving the front wheels.
Boosted it is but not heavily as it is in the Beetle’s cousin, the GTI, where the same basic engine is pumped-up to 228 hp and requires premium unleaded, a 30-40 cents or so tax-per-gallon for the extra power.
The Beetle’s 2.0 likes regular unleaded saving you 30-40 cents per gallon.
Another plus: The Beetle’s engine is not direct-injected, so no worries about down-the-road carbon-fouling of the intake valves. And the six-speed automatic isn’t an eight or ten-speed automatic which decreases the odds of something going wrong and if it does, it should be less expensive.
The eight/nine/ten-speed transmissions being installed in the latest-design cars are being installed in them solely to eke out slight MPG gains, on the order of maybe 2-3 MPG, by tightening up the spread between gear ratios for the first six or so gear and then reducing engine revs as much as possible as soon as possible via two or even three overdrive gears on top.
There’s arguably not much benefit to the car’s owner, even though it does benefit the car’s maker by improving its CAFE fuel economy scores. Which the car buyer gets to pay for.
Saving gas isn’t free.
On The Road
The classic Beetle made through 2003 only came with one engine, too, but it would take three of the old air-cooled flat fours to make the same power as the current Beetle’s water-cooled four produces.
You can’t shift for yourself, but you can merge without risking being run over by Semis and the Beetle easily keeps up with traffic, which the original sometimes had trouble doing.
It gets to 60 in about 7 seconds, which is at least twice as fast as the original which also had a top speed around 90. The modern Beetle can easily, comfortably hold 75-80, which was possible in an old Beetle but only with the wind at your back and with the engine wailing.
Plus, the heater works.
Also the defroster. It is not necessary to keep an old rag in the glovebox to wipe a hole in the fogged up glass so you can see where you’re headed.
On the downside, it’s not as entertaining to drive as the original. In one of those, every drive was an adventure and you had to keep on your toes. Keeping up with traffic meant anticipating the light turning green and sidestepping the clutch and mashing the gas to get the Beetle going before the rest of the pack noticed the light turned.
Hills required the building of speed on the downslope so as to maintain speed going up. Which you sometimes couldn’t. Then you’d gear down, move over to the right and hope it didn’t overheat.
But, you always had a story.
And the original Beetle was better in the snow than most new cars including some with AWD. The rear-mounted engine weighted the drive wheels and the pizza-pan wheels (thin and tall) cut right through the snow to the pavement (and traction) underneath.
It may have taken more time to get going, but it was hard to get stuck in a classic Beetle even if you couldn’t see where you were going.
And even if you were freezing.
Driving the modern Beetle is something of a letdown because it’s so much like driving any other modern car. Nothing sets it apart. No stories to tell. Which may partially account for it not selling as well as other modern cars.
It’s ironic that the very things people expect in modern cars, no fuss/smoothness/more-than-adequate power, take away from the reasons for owning a Beetle. That plus the cost.
The current Beetle isn’t cheap. The convertible sent me to test drive stickered for $30k. It was a very nice car, but also a $30k car.
The previously available diesel which was available with a manual gave the modern Beetle personality lacking in this final Beetle as well as 50-plus MPG, which gave it an economic case to make to buyers vs. other cars.
But Uncle outlawed that, too which surely contributed to this being the final Beetle.
At The Curb
Cosmetics are the biggest commonalty.
The final Beetle hasn’t got much in common mechanically with the original but it’s a dead ringer for it even if none of the panels interchange. VW did arguably the best retro reincarnation of any classic-to-modern car, with the possible exception of the Dodge Challenger.
The 2012 makeover butched up the look of the car vs. the ’98-2011 versions; it got lower and looked wider. But the Beetleness of the aesthetics remains true to form.
Nothing else looks like any Beetle.
Like the original, this Beetle is also a pretty practical car for a compact coupe, if you get the hardtop. It has a large trunk in back, unlike the classic model, which had it up front.
There’s 15.4 cubic feet of capacity, which is about the same as many full-sized sedans with much larger footprints. With the back seats folded, the available space opens up to 29.9 cubic feet. And it opens up hugely, on account of the large liftgate.
You can cart around a lot in a Beetle.
However, the convertible sacrifices almost all of that space for the sake of open-air motoring. Capacity plummets to just 7.1 cubic feet. The opening is also tiny, further reducing what you can do with the not-much-space you’ve got to work with.
Luckily, the Beetle (hardtop and ragtop) has two gloveboxes.
Unlike the original, the current (and final) Beetle is beefy, 3,045 lbs. for the coupe. That’s about 1,500 pounds heavier than a classic Beetle which didn’t have to meet current federal safety standards.
Which didn’t mean it was “unsafe” to drive. Just that if you crashed it, you’d be less protected.
It was also bereft of almost every modern amenity that added weight, such as AC, which comes standard in the modern Beetle. Even so, it’d be neat if VW had offered the modern Beetle without AC but with wing-vent windows. These keep you cool without adding weight. And it would reduce the tab.
Ditto pizza-pan wheels.
Even the base Beetle comes with modern (wide) wheels and tires that do not cut down through the snow to the traction below. The Big Wheels craze is arguably among the silliest of modern car design trends as it decreases gas mileage, increases rolling resistance, makes a car less snow-worthy and adds to the cost of the car because larger wheels/tires cost more than smaller ones.
There is a theoretical handling advantage but most drivers will never actualize this because it requires driving very fast, laterally something few drivers ever do in Safety Cult America. There is also a traction advantage if it’s not snowing but again, it’s debatable whether the theoretical/situational upsides outweigh the actual and everyday downsides.
The Beetle is “classic” in several mention-worthy ways.
Relative to other 2019 model years, it has relatively few driver “assistance” technologies, such as Lane Keep Assist and Automatic Engine Stop/Start, which have become very common features in almost all new cars.
The reason for this is that the 2019 Beetle is basically the same as the 2012 Beetle, which was the last time VW did a major makeover. And back in 2012, these “features” weren’t yet available. Much less de facto standard, as now in most cars designed within the past two or three years.
If you prefer not to be electronically parented, you will like the Beetle.
It also has a CD slot. There are still people who listen to “hard copy” music as well as a pull-up emergency brake lever rather than a push-button electric parking brake. One is actuated by hand and via a cable; the other by software and actuators. One is simpler and offers the driver more control; the other is more complicated and takes control away.
A final mention for this final Beetle is VW’s updated warranty coverage which applies to all VWs as a kind of mea culpa for the diesel “cheating” business. Its six years or 72,000 miles on the whole car — which for the record is about four times the coverage you got from VW back in the ’70s on the classic Beetle.
The difference, of course, was when the classic-era Beetle went kaput it was often feasible for the owner to fix it — and the fix was usually cheap. The modern Beetle is a modern car and so when it goes kaput you’ll likely be calling for a truck.
The upside is this will probably occur only after many years have passed as opposed to a month or so after you left the dealership, as was pretty common back in the day. There are no points to wear out or gap to reset; the carburetor never backfires because there isn’t one and you’ll never have to worry about the clutch cable falling off the pedal and gimping home in whatever gear you happened to be in when that happened.
But you also won’t have all those great stories, either.
The Bottom Line
It’s sad to see the Beetle going away — again.
But there’s still time get one before it goes away again—this time, probably, for good.
* * *
The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.