Convertible Beetle back in battle for VW in the US

Volkswagen Beetle convertible
Image caption The third generation Beetle will become a brand ambassador for Volkswagen in the US

With Beach Boys on the radio and a gently warming autumn sun overhead, driving the new Beetle convertible along Santa Monica's palm tree-lined boulevards feels like a journey back in time.

Half a century or so ago, California was all about youthful independence and the breaking of conventions, a time when hope and a desire for change was mixed with both widespread anti-establishment anger and a tremendous sense of fun.

Since then, California's carefree hippie-style surf culture has not only prevailed but evolved into an almighty entertainment and fashion machine that has long since left the humble Bug behind.

Volkswagen's attempt to revive the Beetle in the late 1990s failed to spark the sort of emotional responses inspired by the original during six decades following World War II.

When the first convertible version of the New Beetle was launched in 2003 it "quickly became an icon among sorority girls the world over", according to motoring website Edmunds.

In the macho world of motoring, the original New Beetle Cabriolet was soon deemed to be overly female, and as such it failed to attract many male buyers.

Brand ambassador

Image caption Volkswagen's US market share has risen to about 3% from about 2% in 2008

Volkswagen's third-generation Beetle set out to address this with a more masculine design that has now been launched as a convertible too at the Los Angeles motor show.

The latest Beetle Cabriolet is lower, sleeker and longer than its predecessors, and as such it comes across as a modern interpretation of a classic car rather than as a pure retro-model.

Unlike the original, which was built as an affordable car for the masses, the latest version feels neither cheap nor basic; expect this to remain a car for specially interested and somewhat wealthy car buyers.

But that is not a problem, Volkswagen's American chief executive Jonathan Browning tells the BBC.

"The Beetle is one of the most loved cars in the automotive arena," he says - so the latest convertible Bug has a marketing job to do.

"The Beetle is about more than volume and economics," Mr Browning says.

"It's our most emotive vehicle and it is very much the heart and soul of the Volkswagen brand."

'Not complacent'

As a brand ambassador in the US, the car's role will be to attract customers to Volkswagen's showrooms and thus drive sales of its other models, such as the Passat, which is built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Jetta, which is built alongside the Beetle in Puebla, Mexico.

This makes the Beetle central to the carmaker's ambitions to revive the Volkswagen brand's position in the US market.

Image caption The third generation Beetle Cabriolet is one of the most eye-catching model launches at the LA show

The plan, hammered out in 2008, is backed by an investment to the tune of $4bn (£2.5bn) by the German parent company Volkswagen Group, which also owns a string of other marques ranging from Lamborghini and Bentley to Skoda and Seat.

So far, Volkswagen's US market share has risen from about 2% in 2008 to about 3% now, with sales during the last couple of years surging from just over 250,000 cars in 2010 to 324,000 last year and about 400,000 cars so far this year.

So one might think Mr Browning would be pleased - but not so.

"We are not complacent," he says. "We are not yet satisfied with our results."

The Volkswagen marque is in fact gunning for a further doubling its US sales to about 800,000 cars per year by 2018, as part of Volkswagen Group's goal of becoming the world's largest automotive firm.

The group is following a similar strategy in Brazil, a former Beetle stronghold. Last month, it announced that it will be investing heavily there; some $4.4bn over the next for years.

Commercialised hippy car

Taking the reborn Beetle to the beach outside Santa Monica, such global expansionism comes across as a paradox.

Here we have the successor to a car that rose to become an automotive icon, arguably thanks to its popularity with hippy and surfer crowds with a tendency to prefer the earthy to the material.

Image caption The new Beetle is neither cheap nor basic, and as such it has strayed far from the original

And yet, the Beetle provided the foundations for the emergence of a global commercial enterprise; a truly multinational industrial company that has morphed into a seemingly unstoppable force in the world of automotive.

As such, the original convertible Bug might have been born as a provider of independence, offering hope of a more carefree lifestyle.

By comparison, the demands placed on the new one are considerably more onerous, highly commercial in nature and far less romantic.

And that might well be an accurate reflection of the lives many of its customers lead.

The Los Angeles motor show is open to the public from 30 November until 9 December.