Revamped VW Beetle Feeling Man Love

Edmunds Data Show Nearly Half of Buyers in December Were Guys

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The redesigned Volkswagen Beetle "chick car" has become chic ... among men.

The brief for the 2012 Beetle, as outlined last year by Jonathan Browning, VW's head of North American operations, was to make its design more "masculine." The previous version had "a very large contingent of female buyers," Mr. Browning said. "We want to keep those buyers and expand to more male buyers."

Apparently the marketing is working as planned: Edmunds.com, an automotive researcher in Santa Monica, Calif., said its demographic tracking shows that in December 2011, Beetle sales were split nearly equally between men and women. The previous December, the breakdown was 56% female vs. 35% male, with an "unknown" factor of 8.7%. (The Beetle had the third-highest percentage of female registrants in the U.S. last year, according to Edmunds, behind the Rogue crossover from Nissan and VW's hardtop convertible, the Eos.)

The gender divide was most dramatic in mid-2011, when women bought three out of every five Beetles, Edmunds said. Last April, then VP-Marketing Tim Ellis told Ad Age that 60% of Beetle buyers were female and that the company wanted to go more "gender neutral." "The opportunity is to broaden, not switch targets," he said.

Slightly more than 2,700 Beetles were sold in the U.S. in the first two months of 2012, according to Automotive News data. VW's bread-and-butter model in the States, the Jetta, sold nearly 24,000 units in the same period.

Klaus Bischof, VW's brand design chief, gave the new Beetle model a slicker roofline, a more-pronounced front and rear fascia, and less of a "bubble" shape. It was also made bigger -- its length increased six inches and shape widened three inches. A higher-horsepower, turbocharged motor was also added.

Another small car that appears to be fighting the chick-car image is the Fiat 500. After a disappointingly slow sales start last year and a series of panned broadcast ads starring Jennifer Lopez, Olivier Francois, CMO for the Chrysler/Fiat group, revamped the creative strategy to reflect a more macho slant, employing actor Charlie Sheen, Romanian model Catrinel Menghia, and, most recently, a feisty, curly-haired blonde baby.

VW, ambitiously optimistic about estimates to increase U.S. sales to a million vehicles by 2018 from about 444,200 last year, is pulling Beetle variants out of its ears going forward. In February, a TDI diesel version that the EPA said is good for 39 miles per gallon on the highway was unwrapped in Chicago to go on sale this summer. An electric-powered Beetle, the conceptual "E-Bugster," had been shown at the North American International Auto Show in January, and late last year a high-performance version of the Bug, called the Beetle R, showed up in Los Angeles.

The company's initial concentrated ad blitz for the Beetle came during this year's Super Bowl, with a spot created by its Deutsch L.A. agency, called "The Dog Strikes Back," featuring a rather gender-neutral theme about a dog exercising that segued to some "Star Wars" characters chilling in a cantina bar.

But while VW seems to be drawing in men, at least one dealer seemed concerned it came at the expense of women. A VW dealer near Boston who asked not to be named said he's found that women shoppers "aren't going ga-ga over the car. ... I think [VW] made it too manly. Overall, the car hasn't really caught on yet. But when the convertible arrives, that will change all the parameters."

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