The Volkswagen Beetle: Driving an icon

What makes a design iconic? That with only a few broad strokes or a couple of distinguishing features, one would easily be able to identify what it is. The design also needs to be so unique that at its introduction to the public, it is instantly and exclusively associated with its owner as the original source.

But what makes something a cultural icon? It has to transcend its utilitarian purpose and win the hearts of many. It has to stand the test of time; it has to stay relevant throughout the decades that follow its introduction.

Many have attempted – and failed – to create icons that are forever etched in the hearts and memories of people. There is no shortage of ideas that tanked despite their creators’ best intentions. In the presence of these countless failures, the successful ones stand out even more. The Coca-Cola bottle, Converse sneakers and Ray Ban aviators are just some examples to have found their place in a global pop culture across generations of consumers, where the product is so strongly associated with the brand that any alternative bearing a similar form or design is perceived as an imitation of the original.

The automotive industry has its own share of hits and misses. There are cars which seem destined straight for the scrap yard, and there are plenty of mediocre options for the unfussy driver, followed by a smaller pool of models proving that the manufacturers aren’t dictated by the bean counters. But once in a while, we are treated to something special.

The Porsche 911 has been one of the most commercially successful sports cars since its introduction in the 1960s. At its core, the 911’s distinctive silhouette hasn’t changed throughout the years, making every generation of the model instantly identifiable. Yet, if you go further back in time to the 1930s, you’d find a similar automotive shape in the form of the first-generation Volkswagen Beetle. Compare the side profiles of these two models’ first ever commercially-approved designs, and you will find more than a passing resemblance.

The first generation of Volkswagen Beetles sold over 21.5 million units, making it the first car to pass the 20-million mark. In terms of sheer volume, only the Toyota Corolla has done better, although its model type has differed over the years on its way to claiming the sales record.

The Beetle’s storied past is summarised rather well by Car and Driver in a commemorative online flipbook. It’s a charismatic set of wheels, thanks to a design that has made it one of the most recognisable in the world through its various generations. The game of punch buggy probably helped too. The Beetle’s appearance pleases more than misses, and with the latest generation, offers driving dynamics that complement the more masculine design.

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Standard 18″ Twister wheels add presence to the masculine lines

Where the previous generation seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with semi-circles (and a built-in flower vase), the current design benefits from having its proportions stretched compared to its predecessor. The front bonnet is extended, the front windscreen shifted back with a steeper incline, and the rear has a more tapered elongation. I wouldn’t blame you if you read this paragraph out of context and thought I was describing the Porsche 911.

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A wider track and longer wheelbase give the Beetle a more confident stance

The exterior changes aren’t just from the wheels up. The Beetle’s track width gained 63mm in front and 49mm at the rear, while the wheelbase increased in length by 22mm. All these help give the car a wider, more confident stance, and the driving dynamics no doubt improved as a result. Volkswagen’s press release couldn’t be more explicit if they tried, saying the design of “the new model was to clearly express power instead of flower power.”

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A sporty driving experience awaits

Inside, the first thing you’d probably notice is the body-coloured dashboard that stretches from one door to the other. A similar treatment is applied to the multi-function steering wheel, which is thinner than the current Golf Mk 7’s. The Beetle now comes with a 5-inch colour touchscreen on the centre console and panoramic sunroof as standard, but otherwise, this 1.2 TSI variant is relatively spartan. It doesn’t have keyless entry and ignition, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and engine start/stop.

Without the techy features to distract occupants, it’s even more important to get the basics right. The build quality in the Beetle matches what many satisfied owners have come to expect over the years. Buttons and dials are well damped, the information displays are easy to read, and there are just enough soft-touch materials where it matters to ensure a pleasant experience. Despite its frameless windows, the Beetle’s noise insulation was impressive even at highway speeds.

Drivers who grew up on larger displacement engines may scoff at the Beetle’s small motor, but direct fuel injection and turbocharging have come a long way. While it’s no sports car, the 1.2 TSI is plucky, producing 103bhp at 5,000rpm. Paired with Volkswagen’s 7-speed DSG, it willingly revs and accommodates your desire to pick up speed on local roads, emitting a pleasant exhaust note in the process. The Beetle is like a puppy that won’t win any awards for looks or athleticism, but will always give you everything when you want it to.

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The Beetle corners well with very little body roll, yet soaks up the imperfections from a lot of Singapore’s road surfaces. It’s fitted with a MacPherson-type strut suspension at the front with helical springs and telescoping dampers, while the rear has a newly developed suspension in lightweight construction. The presence of an anti-sway bar must also have contributed to its poise around the bends. Overall handling is great for a car like this, no doubt aided by the 235mm-wide tyres (the Golf runs on tyres 10mm narrower). The electromechanical power steering is decent, and the bulbous nose turns wherever you point it towards.

In terms of passenger comfort, accessing the two rear seats is simple enough, but I wouldn’t fancy sitting in the back for anything more than 10 minutes at a go. Front occupants will also find reaching for the seat belt to be an exercise in flexibility, as the B-pillars are positioned quite far behind the usual seating position. However, if you’re in the market for a retro-styled hatchback, you’ll find a pretty reasonable boot space compared to rivals like the MINI Cooper and Fiat 500. All in all, the trade-offs for style won’t wipe the smile off your face when you’re driving it.

And that got me thinking. Not many people will get the chance to experience the lifestyle and mindset of living with a Beetle – even if it’s just for a couple of days – since it’s not a car commonly found in rental fleets. Unlike with other small cars, owning a Beetle is a choice, not a compromise; it’s an expression of your attitude to life. Too many cars today are too serious, no doubt weighed by the burden of sales targets and shareholder expectations.

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15 LEDs line the outer border of each headlight housing, forming the Beetle’s daytime running lights
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Integrated into the flared rear wings, the Beetle’s rear lamps have an unmistakable C-shaped look

The Volkswagen Beetle is a throwback to an earlier time, when we were less driven by corporate pressures, and when we were contented to live more simply. It’s about getting in the car, driving out, and having a good time wherever you find yourself. When I had the Beetle for a weekend, people paid more attention to it than most other cars I’d driven. There might even have been a few envious glances by strangers. The fondness towards this iconic automobile still exists today, regardless of how much or little one knows of its history.

And if you’re looking for something a little different for your wedding, Volkswagen Singapore has a wedding rental programme where couples can hire the Beetle for a fee.

Special thanks to Volkswagen Singapore for this opportunity.

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