How do you reinvent an icon? You build the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle.
How do you reinvent a reinvented icon? Well, that's not quite so easy. First, you drop the "New" from the title to create the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle
. Then you give it a more flattering shape better aligned inside and out with the original. Toss in a little new technology and chuck some
cuteness out the window and your recipe is complete.
What is it?
The original people's car reincarnated, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle is, underneath its shapely skin, basically a Jetta sedan. We haven't had high praise for the Jetta, a decontented four-door re-engineered for North American tastes. But the Beetle is something different, as we quickly learned during our evaluation.
Our tester was loaded to the gills with everything but the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. In its place was VW's ubiquitous 2.5-liter five-cylinder mated to a six-speed Tiptronic conventional automatic transmission.
Beetles start at $18,995, but VW offers its two-doors in a series of trim levels that build on the base model with more goodies. As the range-topping five-cylinder, our tester came with navigation, a moonroof, big alloy wheels, heated seats and varies other goodies that added about $7,000 to its bottom line.
And don't ask for a bud vase... you'll have to make your own, since this Beetle is supposed to be a little more manly. But we're pretty sure the aftermarket industry will be happy to cater to the Beetle in due time.
What's it up against?
We doubt there's much cross-shopping in this segment, but if you're determined to have a comparison list, other remade classics worth considering include the smaller Fiat 500 and the sportier MINI Cooper.
Aside from its more historically-accurate styling, the Beetle doesn't bring with it many genuine breakthroughs. But in this class, styling might just be all that it needs.
Still, we were overwhelmed with the Fender-branded audio system included on our tester. We were initially skeptical that Fender, best known for its guitars worth more than many Beetles, was simply lending its name to a set of speakers. But this system positively rocks, besting nearly any other audio unit we've ever encountered.
What's it look like?
It finally looks like a Beetle! Sure, the original New Beetle (the 1998 one) was cute and bubbly, but its nearly symmetrical proportions were a few half-circles too many. This latest design corrects that with a longer front hood, a lowered roof and a sloping tail. Of course, the engine and drive wheels are on the wrong end, but at least the styling looks like a more natural evolution over the ages.
The result is an undeniably more sporting appearance than before. While still clearly a Beetle, the car is certainly fresh and clean enough to garner plenty of attention. During our week-long evaluation, we were stopped by numerous passers-by, all of whom knew that it was the new-new Beetle, not the New Beetle.
We took issue with the vertical front bumper, but its upright nature satisfies European pedestrian safety regulations and we realize there is only so much "around designing" a styling studio can do. But that dismay was offset by our love for the 18-inch full-face chromed wheels on our tester. Aside from being nearly impossible to photograph without capturing yours truly, they are suitably retro-cool.
And on the inside?
Given that the old New Beetle's digs were essentially unchanged after its 1998 introduction, pretty much anything would have been an improvement here. Rather than take the bland-is-good-for-everyone approach of the Jetta, VW's interior design team went with a bold body-color vertical applique for the dashboard itself. Like the exterior, it harks back to the earliest Beetles, which featured metal dashboards to save money.
Simple round gauges clustered together and minimal switchgear emphasize the retro-laden approach, but there's more than meets the eye to this interior. Despite a reliance on the same controls and knobs you'll find elsewhere in the VW lineup, not to mention generally mediocre plastics, the bold design gives Beetle a pleasingly upscale look that belies the materials on offer.
We especially liked the flat-bottomed three-spoke steering wheel and the small secondary glovebox built into the vertical portion of the dashboard. VW calls that extra glovebox a kaeferfach
and it's sized just right to store your schnitzel.
Both driver and passenger sit in chair-like seats covered in VW's trademark leatherette, a trim that doesn't feel like cow, but apparently is sufficiently convincing for most buyers. Unlike the last Bug, this one's driving position is top-notch due to a windshield located much closer to the driver and a headliner actually within reaching distance. The back seat is roomier than we expected and it's easy to access thanks to wide front doors. So too the cargo bay, which is expandable through the split-folding second row seatbacks.
And then there's that audio system, which unfortunately uses a compromised navigation head unit. Its high-resolution map is pretty but doesn't allow panning across the screen and it only shows limited street names, while the audio interface makes seeking and switching between presets mutually exclusive activities. But the crystal clear sound and positive punch kept our ears thoroughly auroused.
But does it go?
Our tester's push-button start utilized a round button ahead of the automatic transmission gear lever. Hold it down for a few seconds - don't just tap it once - and the Beetle's 2.5-liter five-cylinder rumbles to life. It beats out a unique thrum, but that's really only evident when the curved hood is open.
Unless they're fueled by diesel, VW's smaller powertrain offerings in the U.S. have long left something to be desired, but the comparatively svelte Beetle is at least reasonably manageable. On paper, the 2.5-liter puts out 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft. of torque, both of which peak toward the upper reaches of the rev range.
As a result, the six-speed Tiptronic is forced to hold gears to maximize power. Shifts are quick and smooth, with immediate tip-in more refined than the six-speed dual clutch unit VW uses in other models. Fortunately, the 2.5-liter is pretty quiet when the needle goes streaking across the tachometer.
Five-cylinder Bugs receive hydraulic power steering that's nicely weighted and serves up pretty good feel. Underneath, they use front struts and a low-tech rear torsion beam. Tossed hard into a corner, the Beetle grips with minimal drama and limited body lean, a surprise given 2.5-liter versions don't include a rear sway bar. Although not quite convincingly sporty, the handling is set up for a neutral feel aided primarily by relatively grippy rubber and an aggressive stability control system. Four-wheel disc brakes, a step above the rear drums found in the Jetta, brought our test Beetle to a halt quickly and confidently.
Certainly, the driving experience falls short of that of the go-kart-like MINI Cooper, but the Beetle's well-insulated ride and stiff structure do give it an admirably refined feel. Road noise and wind roar are minimal, while impacts from the road are extremely well damped. If it's style with a premium feel you're after, the five-cylinder Beetle hits the mark.
Owing to the extra cylinder compared to most compact coupes, the Beetle wasn't quite the gas-friendly savior we hoped to see. Weighing in at 2,900 lbs., our tester was right on target with the EPA's 20/29 mpg estimates.
Why you would buy it:
Beetle's back and better than ever...
Why you wouldn't:
"¦ but it's not really much of a driver's car unless you opt for the turbo.
Leftlane's bottom line
A 50-some-odd year-old woman's comments were perhaps most telling: "It's still so
adorable," she squeaked after running out of a restaurant to stop us in a parking lot.
We don't think VW is ever going to be able to shrug off the Beetle's cutesy image, but this latest effort is at least fairly entertaining and impressively refined. We'll wait for one with a little more underhood oomph
, but the Beetle is finally a pleasant little runabout.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle 2.5
base price, $18,995. As tested, $25,965.
Sunroof, Sound and Navi trim level, $5,100; Automatic transmission, $1,100; Destination, $770.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.