Robert Cumberford: Volkswagen Beetle, Chevrolet Volt Surprise

The proof is in the pudding,” says a very old English proverb. Some of my experiences in the month of March this year — through which my solid distaste for two contemporary cars has been seriously tempered by actually driving them in real-world conditions – illustrated the proverb, because the cars that had been worthy only of my disdain turned out to be not just “not bad,” but really good.

The first of them was the Volkswagen Neue New Beetle, second of the Golfs made to look like a 1930s KdF Volkswagen. I picked the New Beetle up in Jacksonville, Florida, where the weather was more like summer than spring. The first retro-styled New Beetle had been a pleasant sort of cartoon car, one that seemed to appeal to a heteroclite range of buyers, from old German burghers wanting something that recalled the model they first drove long ago to chirpy young women who thought it was “cute.” And that it was, to the point that I could never take it seriously, nor did I want to be seen in one. When the model was massively revised fairly recently, it lost much of the cute but retained the aura of being an amusement.

I was one of the many who said of the first New Beetle, “Why buy this thing when a Golf is more practical, cheaper, and basically the same vehicle?” And that was pretty much my reaction to the newest iteration. I sat in one when it was first introduced and noted that the seats were really excellent and that the cabin felt more like a car and less like a goldfish bowl. Then one was offered for me to use in Florida, a bright red model with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and an automatic gearbox – but not the high-tech dual-clutch automatic, the old-fashioned hydraulic torque-converter kind. The powertrain was smooth, quiet, and quick when I wanted it to be, unobtrusive when I didn’t care how it behaved. The seats felt as good after ten hours on the road as they’d been during two minutes at the auto show. Luggage room wasn’t much, but with the rear seatbacks folded, there was room for four big pieces and two carry-ons.

I was reminded of the VWs I had in the ’50s, in that everything worked exactly as it was supposed to and the feel of the switches and levers and door handles was positive and precise. What was different was the comfort and convenience of a heater that actually worked, air-conditioning, GPS navigation, cruise control, and other modern amenities. And above all I appreciated the stable, safe, and predictable handling. Eighteen inch wheels put as much rubber on the ground as a Cadillac did in the ’50s, and the disc brakes within them had more stopping power than anything on the road when I owned the old Beetles. Maybe the most important aspect of the new car is that absolutely nothing annoyed me physically. Yes, it bothers me that this car weighs almost twice as much as my first VW, but that’s an intellectual concern, not something you realize while you’re driving it. And there is a certain satisfaction in having seven times as much power for about the same fuel economy.

So, while I still wouldn’t buy this car for my own use, I did enormously enjoy it and considered it to be a really good car. There is no way I will be scornful of anyone I see driving one, not any more.

The other revelation was the Chevrolet Volt I picked up in Paris on my return from Florida. It was fully charged when I got it, and the entertaining instrument panel said I had 31 kilometers of autonomy with that charge, based on the way it had been driven previously. Which, it being a press-fleet car, was no doubt “hard,” as various other journalists had been using it for tests and pushing it to its limits. The only other Volt I’d driven was during our All-Stars drive in 2010, and when it was my turn to drive it the batteries were completely drained, so I never experienced it in full-electric mode. I didn’t like it and couldn’t really see its point, although I appreciated that it was a far more clever technical achievement than the Toyota Prius. Driving in Paris, the Volt seemed like a big car, and by European standards, it is. But it also seemed wonderfully quiet, comfortable and fully up to the merciless cut-and-thrust driving conditions in the City of Light. I parked it outside my hotel and headed for home the following morning. All the luggage that filled up the VW went into the trunk, but it was as visible from the outside as it had been in the VW, because the trunk space is contiguous with the passenger cabin and just covered with a floppy bit of cloth. Yes, this saves weight, but it’s far too cheap and nasty for a $57,000 car (that’s the price in France).

As we headed southwest out of Paris, we reveled in the silence, the excellent ride quality, and the more than adequate acceleration. Just as we reached the A10 autoroute, the car automatically switched from pure electric to the range-extender internal-combustion engine so smoothly that my wife didn’t notice the transition. The car held the statutory 68 mph speed limit effortlessly, and when we had passed onto the main autoroute, where the allowed speed is 81 mph, the engine continued to run quietly, adding enough charge to the batteries to sustain that speed. I suppose I have made the 350-mile trip from Paris to the southwest more than 350 times in the past forty-some years, in vehicles ranging from 750-cc Renaults to Bentley Turbos, and in weather from glorious sunshine to miserable snowstorms, from the days when there was no speed limit outside city boundaries to today when the gendarmes will write you up for 1 kilometer over the posted figure (it just happened to me, my first speeding ticket in 46 years of driving in France). I have never had a more pleasant and relaxing run than we had in the Volt.

No matter how many times I’ve made the run on the autoroute, I have never done it without being slowed by a “truck race.” That happens when a trucker who’s traveling at 56 mph decides to pull out and pass another that’s doing 55. It usually takes about three kilometers of slow running as traffic piles up in the left lane behind the passing truck. At that point, when it was time to accelerate back to cruising speed, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine in the Volt became raucous and stayed that way for a few minutes, after which it reverted to the constant speed used to maintain the battery charge. That was the one negative, and it happened only twice in 350 miles.

Once home, driving around the usual haunts as one would with any car for the next week, it became clear that the Volt is not just a technical masterpiece, it’s a good car. No, I’ll take that back. It’s a very, very good car. I know that many politically motivated critics say it’s a sham, an Obama-mobile, a folly, and so on. They have said it to the point that Bob Lutz, who is definitely on the right side of the political spectrum, is furious, saying that the critics are outright lying. I know about the crashed Volt battery catching fire weeks after a crash test, about the abusive test of a non-Volt battery causing an explosion in a GM lab recently, but all I see is a lot of stupid anti-Obama, anti-electric-car propaganda. The Volt is a good car with great technology, and had GM not been hampered by its financial straits in the lead-in to bankruptcy, it would be even better. The internal-combustion engine is not optimized, it’s bigger and heavier than it need be were it not drawn from pre-existing tooling, and so on. But within the constraints that were imposed by previous missteps and Rick Wagoner’s laissez-faire management by inaction, the Volt is a tour de force.

I do think it’s dumb-looking, and that’s hurting it in the market. Who wants to pay that kind of money for a vehicle that has absolutely no pizazz? I think of the exuberant styling that Harley Earl or Bill Mitchell would have imposed on this masterpiece of technology and regret that someone thought it necessary to keep traces of the show car on a machine that absolutely can’t carry the theme — which wasn’t very good in itself, come to that. No, GM should have made the first Volt a Cadillac, the nameplate alone justifying the high price that has to be charged, and it should have adopted the Toyota strategy with the first Lexus LS400, which was sold for $40,000 when it cost probably twice that to make. But the Lexus, coming from nowhere, imposed itself as a leading luxury car in only a few years and is now enormously profitable for Toyota. They’re not selling Lexus sedans and SUVs at a loss today, for sure. But GM is not selling many Volts at all; in fact, they’re “on hiatus” until the end of April. And that’s too bad. It’s a really wonderful car with enormous potential, something we should all be proud of as an American masterpiece despite the dumb styling.

-Robert Cumberford

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