March 21 (Bloomberg) -- The VW Beetle is cute as a bug. Unique and recognizable, it’s an icon of affordable personal transportation. What it hasn’t been: manly.
Once intended as a ride for the common man, it had become a model that put the driver’s masculine reputation at risk. So the new version of the two-door was redesigned last year with a more angular, sporty look to attract more male shoppers. TV ads show a Beetle-driving guy getting a high-five from a beautiful woman and a fist-bump from a tough-looking dude on a motorcycle.
Persuading men that it’s cool to drive the Beetle has been a challenge since Volkswagen AG brought it back to showrooms in 1998. Now it’s more important than ever. Volkswagen, seeking to double U.S. sales by 2018, doesn’t want to alienate half of the potential buyers for such an important model. The car is also a so-called halo vehicle that attracts people who might then purchase something else.
“Girls don’t mind driving masculine cars; I don’t think it works the other way around,” Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with Edmunds.com, said in a telephone interview. “Once a car is labeled a chick’s car, a lot of guys don’t feel comfortable driving it.”
The company is having some success. Since the new version went on sale in September, 43 percent of U.S. buyers have been men, up from 29 percent a year earlier, VW said. Marketing efforts for the redesigned model include a tie-in with Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox video-game console and an emphasis on the car’s optional turbo power.
“One of the goals, obviously, was to potentially attract a more-balanced buyer group,” Tim Mahoney, VW’s chief product and marketing officer in the U.S., said in a telephone interview last month. “We’re seeing that happen.”
In December, half of Beetle buyers were men, up from 36 percent a year earlier, according to Edmunds, which tracks auto sales. The Beetle had the third-highest percentage of female registrants in the U.S. last year, according to Edmunds. Only VW’s Eos convertible and Nissan Motor Co.’s Rogue crossover were sold more frequently to women.
VW’s aim is to increase annual sales, including the Audi brand, to 1 million vehicles in the U.S. by 2018 from about 444,200 last year. The U.S. is a key part of the Wolfsburg, Germany-based manufacturer’s goal to surpass General Motors Co. as the world’s top-selling automaker.
Symbol of Brand
“This is a vehicle that gets a lot of attention and brings a lot people into our showrooms,” Jonathan Browning, head of VW’s U.S. operations, said in an April interview after unveiling the new design in New York City. “This is very much a symbol of VW, a symbol of connection with the U.S. customer, and so that’s why I think of it as an enabler, an engine of growth.”
The redesign aimed to give the Beetle a more masculine look with a broader, more aggressive stance. Cute features, such as a flower vase on the dashboard, were eliminated.
It remains one of the less macho cars on the road, said Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst with TrueCar.com.
“They’ve done some improvements in the styling of the vehicle that made it slightly less feminine, but Beetle remains a more feminine design,” he said. “This is not necessarily a major problem. You don’t want to alienate your core buying group for a particular model as long there’s a strong following.”
Michael Logue, 48, of Castle Rock, Colorado, who works in information management, bought a 1999 Beetle because his wife thought it was cute, he said in an e-mail. While the new design is more masculine, he said he’s leaning toward the VW GTI when he buys his next car, because he prefers its styling.
“The 2012 Beetle has the elongated hood, which makes it look like it’s been customized by an after-market company,” he said. “In addition, the interior has been redesigned to match the rest of the VW family. While not necessarily more masculine, it wouldn’t put off male buyers.”
The number of men buying Beetles should remain strong as VW adds a diesel version of the car, said Mahoney, the marketing executive. VW said 70 percent of the so-called TDI or diesel vehicles sold from January 2011 to February of this year went to men.
Mahoney, who notes that he has both a daughter and a wife, said that female buyers aren’t bad.
“We want cars that appeal to everyone,” he said. “It’s not so much about saying we don’t want to be a girl’s car, but it’s more about we want to be everybody’s car.”
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