Redesign of Beetle a gamble for VW

Streamlined look aims to add sales

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NEW YORK | In its 73-year history, the Beetle has evolved from a Nazi-backed car for the masses to the hippie ride of choice to a cute chick car. Now Volkswagen is reinventing it again.

The German company on Monday introduced an edgy new design for its signature model, giving it a flatter roof, a less bulbous shape, narrowed windows and a sharp crease along the side. Gone is the built-in flower vase on the dashboard.

It is the first overhaul since 1998, when Volkswagen came up with the New Beetle. VW, which wants to triple its U.S. sales of cars and trucks over the next decade, is betting that the changes will appeal to more buyers, especially men.

But the changes could anger fans, who love the little four-seater for its huggable curves and perky attitude.

“I hope they keep the fun in the car, and all the round angles,” said Howie Lipton, who owns a computer repair business in Hamilton, Ontario, and helps organize an annual New Beetle show in Roswell, N.M.

Mr. Lipton said he was hoping VW would update the spare interior, and his wish has been granted. VW’s lead Beetle project manager for the U.S., Andres Valbuena, said the 2012 model will have a navigation system, a significantly larger trunk, more-luxurious materials and ambient lighting.

“It ties in more with our other products. It’s more upscale,” Mr. Valbuena said. The 2012 Beetle goes on sale this fall. VW won’t yet say how much it will cost.

The design is based not on the New Beetle but on the original Beetle, which was created in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, came to the U.S. after World War II and became a counterculture favorite because of its low cost and distinctive profile.

It was the antithesis of the land yachts being churned out in Detroit, and Baby Boomers loved it.

But sales slowed as VW faced tough competition in the small-car segment from Japanese and U.S. automakers and money problems back in Germany. U.S. sales of the original Beetle peaked at 200,000 in 1962 and VW stopped selling the car in the U.S. in 1979.

In 1998, the company introduced the New Beetle, an overhaul of the original that became a huge hit. Buyers swooned over its cute, rounded styling. For a time, the Beetle was outselling such stalwarts as the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Impala. When a convertible version was released in 2003, U.S. sales rose to almost 93,000.

It will be difficult for VW designers to capture that emotion and still make the car look current, outside analysts say, especially because it hasn’t been that long since the 1998 redesign.

“Every car manufacturer faces this when they do a facelift, but in the case of the Beetle, you’ve got something people feel fairly strongly about,” said Larry Erickson, who helped lead a much-praised redesign of the Ford Mustang six years ago and now teaches automotive design in Detroit. “It has a certain personality to it, an endearing quality.”

In addition to an upgraded, 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter gas engine, the new Beetle will offer a sportier, 200-horsepower, turbocharged gas engine — Volkswagen hopes it will appeal to male buyers — and a fuel-efficient diesel version.

VW will depend on high-volume sellers such as its Jetta and Passat sedans to meet its ambitious sales goals, which call for selling 1 million vehicles in the U.S. and 10 million worldwide by 2018.

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