VW Unveils Sportier Beetle Design Aimed at Winning Male Buyers

New VW Beetle
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, on display in New York City, will be available in the U.S. in September 2011. Photographer: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Volkswagen AG unveiled a sportier design for the iconic Beetle to woo American men and broaden the appeal of the “Love Bug” as VW aims to triple U.S. sales.

The revamped version is wider, has a flatter roofline and features a roomier interior, the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker said today. The overhauled model comes with a rear spoiler for the 160-horsepower and 200-horsepower versions.

The updated Beetle “will be so much more masculine,” Soh Weiming, VW’s China sales chief, said today in an interview in Shanghai. “It will open up a new customer group for us. The model we have right now is a little bit more feminine but the new car is exactly the opposite.”

The Beetle’s buyers last year were more than 60 percent female, the highest rate for any vehicle sold in the U.S., according to automotive website truecar.com. VW brought back the car in 1998 to capitalize on Americans’ nostalgia for the model, which was featured in films including the Walt Disney Co. comedy series “The Love Bug” as the main character Herbie.

Europe’s biggest automaker is unveiling the redesigned Beetle today at events in Shanghai, New York and Berlin. China, the U.S. and Germany are the model’s largest markets. This is the Beetle’s second overhaul since the original was developed and built during the 1930s in Nazi Germany.

“The Beetle was anything but a very masculine car,” said Kevin Tynan, an automotive analyst at Bloomberg Industries. “It fostered the perception in the U.S. of VW as a more feminine brand. VW has some work to do to improve its appeal with male consumers and it looks as if they’re now addressing the issue.”

Ambience Lighting

The redesigned car, priced at about 17,000 euros ($24,361) in Germany, can be ordered with a sound system by Fender Musical Instruments Corp., fitted with adjustable ambience lighting.

The Beetle’s U.S. buyers were 61 percent female in 2010. Nissan Motor Co.’s Rogue followed at 56 percent and VW’s Eos convertible was third at 55 percent, according to truecar.com. The VW brand doesn’t have any models ranked in the top 20 models among male purchasers in the U.S.

VW last November showed a silhouette of the revamped Beetle on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and gave 275 of the cars away to her studio audience to stoke interest in the model. The new version, which hits American showrooms in September, may boost U.S. sales to 30,000 Beetles next year from 20,000 in 2011, according to automotive website Edmunds.com. The model will be rolled out in Europe starting in October and reach Asian dealers by February, VW said.

Beetle Appeal

“The Beetle is unique and its real value goes far beyond mere sales,” said Jeremy Anwyl, head of Edmunds.com. “The trick for the car is to connect with younger drivers. It entails the option of creating lifetime customers for VW.”

Still, at 17,000 euros, the revamped Beetle is priced above Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s Mini model, which starts at 15,550 euros, and Fiat SpA’s 500, which sells from 11,400 euros, according to the companies’ websites. A range of four-cylinder engines allow the Beetle to reach a maximum speed of 225 kilometers (141 miles) per hour.

The Beetle’s success is key to VW’s plan to boost U.S. sales to 1 million vehicles, including 200,000 for the Audi unit, by 2018. The VW brand and Audi delivered about 360,000 cars in the U.S. in 2010. VW, which will open a U.S. plant next month in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has a broader goal of surpassing Toyota Motor Corp. as the world’s largest carmaker.

Ambitious Agenda

“VW has subscribed to an ambitious growth agenda and progress in the U.S. is absolutely indispensable,” said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. “I’m not convinced though that retro-styling is the best way forward.”

The Beetle’s share of the U.S. subcompact segment declined to 7.2 percent last year from 31 percent in 2002, according to Edmunds.com. Still, the U.S. is the Beetle’s top market, accounting for half the 1.17 million sold globally since the reintroduction in 1998.

The original Beetle dates from VW’s creation under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Ferdinand Porsche, the grandfather of VW’s current chairman Ferdinand Piech and VW’s first leader, was ordered by Hitler to develop a “people’s car” affordable to average working citizens.

Economic Miracle

Production of the vehicle started in 1938 at a factory about 170 kilometers (106 miles) west of Berlin, copying the vertical integration of a Ford Motor Co. plant. The surrounding town built to support the factory was named Wolfsburg in 1945 after a nearby castle, and became VW’s headquarters.

The start of series production in 1945 contributed to Germany’s so-called economic miracle during the 1960s which made VW a household name. Some 21.5 million of the original model were built by the time the last car rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico, in 2003. Volkswagen produced both the old version and the new one for a number of years.

“VW’s history stems largely from the original Beetle which was one of the most successful cars of all time,” said Michael Tyndall, a London-based analyst at Barclays Capital. “The Beetle isn’t particularly significant for volumes or profitability but it’s an important image-builder.”

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