SEDONA, Ariz. - Volkswagen of America Inc. realizes Beetlemania will not last forever.
So it plans to tweak the car with fresh equipment and new models, starting in May with the 1.8T.
The new model has 150 hp and a rear spoiler that deploys automatically at 93 mph. A New Beetle convertible is being developed in Germany, and an even more powerful 'Super' New Beetle may be coming later.
VWoA wants to be prepared for the day when impulse buying dries up. However, Volkswagen dealers say Beetlemania is still strong.
Beetlemania erupted last year in March when the car went on sale. In June, July and August, sales topped 7,000 units a month. Sales slipped to 5,367 in January and 6,625 in February, but that reflects the diversion of some cars to Germany, where the New Beetle went on sale in December.
'The New Beetle still is in very high demand,' said Howard Bonfield, assistant sales manager at Pray Volkswagen in Greenwich, Conn. The dealership continues to see impulse buyers, customers who want a New Beetle regardless of color, options or type of transmission, he said.
But the dealership also has begun to see customers who are more methodical, considering the New Beetle among various cars, Bonfield said.
'So we are selling the value of the car to these customers,' he said.
Pray Volkswagen has a 'respectable' inventory of 1999 New Beetles, but most New Beetle sales orders still are being written on units in transit to the dealer, he said.
Pray Volkswagen does not charge more than the manufacturer's suggested retail price, Bonfield said. He thinks some dealers still are charging above the sticker price.
The Pray dealership also already has an order bank of customers who want the New Beetle convertible, even though he must tell those customers that a convertible is not yet a certainty, Bonfield said.
The New Beetle is made solely in Volkswagen's assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico. So when New Beetle sales began in Europe in December, fewer units were available to sell here, said Frank Maguirecq, VWoA's vice president of sales.
'Our field reports suggest that the demand in the United States now is almost as strong as it was initially,' he said.
But Maguire, too, said a different kind of New Beetle customer is emerging.
'Now we are seeing the customers who are more discriminating,' he said. Instead of grabbing any New Beetle available, customers now are willing to wait to get the exact vehicle they want, Maguire said.
VWoA expects U.S. New Beetle sales of 70,000 this year. It sold 55,842 New Beetles during the 10 months it was on sale in the United States during 1998.
The 1999 New Beetle 1.8T has a turbocharged 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Volkswagen Passat. It was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, and reporters were allowed to drive it in Arizona March 17 during a Volkswagen press event.
The 1.8T's 150-hp engine and a speed-activated spoiler on top of the rear window distinguish this model from other New Beetles, which are powered by 115-hp gasoline or 90-hp diesel engines.
For American drivers who do not want to drive 93 mph, the spoiler still can be deployed by a switch beneath the instrument panel.
VWoA executives say that other variations of the New Beetle are in development. Next up might be a New Beetle convertible now being developed in Germany. Jens Neumann, Volkswagen AG's chairman for the North American region, said during the Detroit auto show in January that a convertible is being developed because 'the customers scream for it.'
Another potential model is a V-6 powered 'Super' New Beetle based on the New Beetle Rsi concept car unveiled in January. It has a bi-turbo Volkswagen VR6 engine, but Volkswagen is not divulging its horsepower.