"Being pegged as ’retro’ really paints the car into a corner," explained my friend Tonya, whose yellow New Beetle was parked in front of a café where we were having coffee. "Because if it’s supposed to look like an older car, then you can’t really redesign it, can you?" And that was the puzzle faced by Volkswagen in 2005 as the venerable New Beetle slouched into its seventh year on sale, virtually unchanged since its inception. Sure, there were some faint Turbo S and color concept blips on the radar, but by the middle of the decade the car that kickstarted the VW revolution in North America was in need of some jazzing up itself. But its vintage design cues meant that it couldn’t really be redesigned.
For 2006, external changes have been limited to bolt-on items, most of which were previewed on 2005’s New Beetle Ragster concept car, and even then not so as you’d notice. The front and rear wheel arches have been redesigned to be more prominent and squared off, eliminating the little vertical planes that used to frame in the wheelhouses. Up front, the Bambi-eye headlamps are larger and have a slightly more ovoid shape, which are complemented by a new bumper that sports a revised lower valence as well as slimmer, rectangular turn signals. The posterior of the "pod" has new tail lamps which feature small, round turn signals inset on large, red brake lamps, and the rear bumper has been redesigned with an integrated black mesh lower valence that contains the backup lamps.
The big news for 2006 is not so much what’s available as what is not. It is doubtful that it will pain our readers to learn that the cast-iron 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine has been dropped for the 2006 model year. It may, however, cause a reaction ranging from a mild flushing at the back of your neck to a full-on frothing from all orifices to learn that the 1.8-liter turbo engine has also been dropped from the lineup. The new standard powerplant for the New Beetle is the same 2.5-liter inline five that’s used in the Jetta, which brings only a meager 150 horsepower to the table to propel the New Beetle’s 3,000 pounds.
In addition to the standard five-speed manual transmission, there is an available six-speed automatic, so the wide ratio of torque multiplication helps accomplish what can’t be done through power alone. The direct-injection diesel TDI engine, with its five-speed manual or six-speed DSG gearbox, continues on unchanged from the previous year. Upgrades to this year’s car are not limited to the drivetrain and body. Upon sitting in the cabin, Beetle enthusiasts will notice a number of modifications to the interior of their ride. Some of the changes, like the redesigned speedometer that uses a new typeface, and the dot-matrix information display that replaces the old LCD odometer, are obvious. Others, like the change from halo-shaped headrests to more traditional units, are less so.
That previously mentioned speedometer, as well as the air vents punctuating the dashboard, have been ringed with an Audi-esque, subtle piece of chrome trim. Large, flip-down side sun visors have been added to aid driver visibility in bright conditions. The cup holders in the center console have been revised to accept larger beverages, which guarantees that your bladder will give out before your fuel supply on road trips. These new components are backed up by the usual array of soft-touch materials lining the door panels and center console, and the familiar stippled rubber coating on the dashboard.
As you would expect from Volkswagen, the part of the car where owners spend the most time has been given thorough attention. From a high of 80,000 annual sales in 1999, just over 17,000 Beetles left showrooms in 2005. While the new model is arguably one of the most refined of the breed, and is still an outstanding car in 1998 terms, in light of its 2006 competition it doesn’t bring enough to the table - either in aspects of utility, performance or sportiness - for the trend to reverse itself. Volkswagen must know this, as its recent promotional campaign for the Beetle has reverted to a sappy, secondhand rip-off of gauzy, honey-dipped vintage Saturn ads called "Force of Good", which advertises none of the merits of the car, and admonishes Beetle owners to "smile more often than other drivers ... talk to [your] plants ... wonder why other cars don’t have bud vases." Perhaps being thought of as "retro" really does brand a product with an expiration date.