Skip to main content

Top 5 best Volkswagen car designs

VW Grille

Volkswagen is world-renowned for its heritage, engineering expertise and reliability. These traits have both influenced and been influenced by design, and as such the German marque's history has not been littered with flamboyant or risky designs, either in terms of visual or pushing mechanical boundaries.

This has not meant a timeline of mundane cars; far from it. At times in Volkswagen's history there have been jaw-dropping beauties, enduring classics and characterful cars - and sometimes all three. Let's take a look at the five VWs that top the list of best designs in the Wolfsburg company's history.

Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle

01 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle

Let's not muck about here - the Beetle is not just one of VW's best designs, it is one of the most enduring motoring icons around. The iconic silhouette is enough to send most car enthusiasts weak at the knees, and its fascinating back story enthrals everyone who hears it.

Designed by Ferdinand Porsche as the car of the people for a Nazi Germany, the rear-engined Type 1 Volkswagen was resurrected following the end of WWII and never looked back. The bug-eyed VW became known as the Beetle and was an unlikely hippy icon in the US as well as the star of the Herbie movies that put the seal on its mainstream appeal.

But car enthusiasts also loved it for its easy maintenance; burbling, air-cooled, flat four engine; and its boundless charm. Produced in Latin America until as recently as 2003, the Beetle's timeless design is matched by no other car – it is the longest-running and most-manufactured car on a single platform ever; a record that is unlikely to be broken.

Volkswagen Type 2 (Bay-window) <a href="">Philip Lange</a> / <a href=""></a>

02 Volkswagen Type 2 bus

The Beetle crossed the boundaries of fashion and trends, but the Type 2 bus created its own. Air-cooled, rear-engined and borne out of the pre-WWII programme that produced the Type 1 Beetle, the VW van was little more than a box on wheels but as soon as multiple windows and seats were added to the original split-window (or 'Splittie') to create the Kombi bus then a juggernaut of a movement was born.

That movement was quicker than the bus itself, being 'powered' (for want of a better word) by the Beetle's 1100 engine, but by the time that the Splittie had been replaced by the Bay-window Type 2 in 1967 the momentum was unstoppable. The space-age curved windscreen and giant VW badge combination is as iconic as a Coke bottle, and the various camper conversions added even more of a sense of freedom and escape to the little Vee-Dub bus.

It's scarcely believable that a crudely engineered car-based van could have generated a following in the 60-plus years since it was first produced that has encompassed everyone from builders to surfers, families to hippies, and its DNA has proved so strong that even the latest, entirely unrelated Volkswagen Transporter vans have the undefinable kudos of the Type 2, and are as revered by their owners as the original. But it's true.

Volkswagen Type 14 Karmann Ghia <a href="">ermess</a> / <a href=""></a>

03 Type 14 Karmann Ghia

Okay, so strictly speaking this is not “Volkswagen car design”, being styled by Italian coachbuilders Ghia and handbuilt by German engineers Karmann. But it is a Volkswagen, as the famous roundels on that curvy nose and smooth rump signify, and underneath that swoopy body is basically a Type 1 chassis and mechanicals. Yup – it's a Beetle, but you'd quickly work that out when you heard the throbby thrum of its distinctive flat-four.

The Karmann Ghia was unveiled at the 1953 Paris Auto Show as a styling concept, then produced from 1955 to 1974 in original, smaller Type 14 form, and '61 to 1974 as the Type 34, based on the larger Type 3 chassis and featuring more squared-off looks. The gorgeous lines of the Type 14 feature a hint of Americana with a low roofline, 'chopped' glasshouse and long overhangs, but it has a look all of its own.

Despite having various restyles, a convertible version, and a couple of engine upgrades in its 19-year run, the Type 14 retained its essential essence and now has a cult following (like most on this page).

Volkswagen Mk1 Golf/Rabbit <a href="">Teddy Leung</a> / <a href=""></a>

04 Volkswagen Mk1 Golf / Rabbit

The Mk1 Volkswagen Golf was launched in 1974 as part of a brand new strategy for VW, moving away from the air-cooled, rear-engined engineering strategy that had served the company well for some 40 years. The switch to a front-engined, front-wheel-drive platform across the entire model range could have gone so horribly wrong, but the fact that it didn't is largely down to the Golf.

A small, pert, beautifully-proportioned car, the Mk1 Golf (or Rabbit, as it was known in the US) arrived at a time that small hatchbacks were beginning to emerge as a popular choice amongst the economy-conscious family car buying public. The Golf may not have been the innovator here, but it had a crisp, Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed body, great handling and strong engines.

In 1976 VW played its trump card by introducing the GTI model – arguably the world's first hot hatchback, and a car that resonates with driving enthusiasts to this very day. The Mk1's design peaked with the GTI, featuring wide alloy wheels tucked under black wheelarch extensions, black decals and cheeky red piping around the grille signifying that something special was going on under the bonnet.

Volkswagen XL1

05 Volkswagen XL1

It's not the first car you think of when you think 'Volkswagen' but the XL1 'Super Efficient Vehicle' is a stunning piece of design which will forever look like you're driving a concept car on the road. The XL1 was unveiled at the Qatar Motor Show in 2011 and wowed the assembled crown not with its pioneering construction techniques, nor its advanced plug-in hybrid drivetrain, or even its figures of 313mpg on the combined cycle while emitting 24g/km of CO2… but rather the fact that it was actually being put into production, and with a near-£100,000 price tag.

Its aerodynamic teardrop shape is reminiscent of the Honda Insight or various 1990s design concepts but none have the drama of the XL1 with its scissor doors, rear-facing cameras in place of wing mirrors, and covered rear wheels. High-tech materials including carbon fibre, magnesium, ceramics and aluminium are all utilised in the construction to keep weight down and strength up.

With the 'Dieselgate' crisis harming VW's environmental credentials in 2015, the XL1 has been almost criminally ignored (no pun intended), but in a perverse way that only adds to its allure.