VW reinvents an icon... again. This time, it's better all around. But is it finally a decent car?

More than 13 years after the original New Beetle started the retro-style trend, Volkswagen has released an all-new model intended to silence the critics and attract male buyers. Can VW repeat its retro magic trick?

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"

""Nick and Jay Gatsby, discussing temporal potential in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Repeating the past is always tricky, but when VW made its New Beetle the center of a full-steam resurgence in 1998, it seemed that the German automaker had been more lucky than good. The 1994 "Concept 1" had re-imagined the original Beetle on the bite-sized Polo platform, but VW chose to make the New Beetle a Golf sibling instead. The resulting car was puffy, awkward, and afflicted with all of the Mk IV Golf's maladies. It was also a roaring success.

Alas, as anybody who bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser for investment purposes can tell you, retro doesn't stay fresh for long. When the New Beetle was introduced, the Apple iMac was a blue-and-white gumdrop, gold was three hundred bucks an ounce, and the federal government didn't make you pose for naked photos just to get on an airplane. The car's been on the market so long that VW would almost be justified doing a retro New New Beetle that paid homage to the first New Beetle.

Instead, the 2012 Beetle has gone back to 1938 for inspiration. A new silhouette, created by changing the angle of the windshield and C-pillar, looks less like a concept car and more like a chopped-window California Bug. It's four inches wider, six inches longer, and about half an inch shorter for a look that Volkswagen calls "masculine."

The interior hits all the notes in the current retro songbook: metal-look painted-plastic trim all around, "V-Tex" vinyl seating, liberal uses of chrome to line the gauges and controls, and an optional "Kaferbach" double glovebox which pays tribute to the first Beetle's dashboard storage. Only the relentlessly modern steering wheel, which is flat-bottomed on the Turbo model, intrudes on the aesthetic.

Pricing ranges from the not-yet-available $18,995 five-speed, five-cylinder model, up through the volume-leader sunroof-and-auto Beetle 2.5 at $23,395, all the way to a fully-loaded car at slightly over $25K. Turbos start at $23,395 and end up at $29,095 plus destination for a DSG model with all the trimmings. We recommend choosing the massive sunroof no matter which engine you like, as it improves the Beetle experience considerably.

While the changes in styling won't please everyone, the changes in the driving experience are almost certain to be universally popular among current New Beetle owners and potential buyers alike. The new A-pillar and dashboard arrangement is vastly better than that of the last car, eliminating virtually all the unnecessary top-of-dash real estate and bringing the windshield into the proper spot. Driving the original New Beetle was always slightly awkward because the long dashboard seemed better-suited to a large van than a small car. Those days are over.

Dynamically, however, the Beetle remains a fundamentally staid little compact. The 2.5 base model is more or less free from enthusiast pretensions. It isn't fast, it isn't eager to attack corners, and it isn't exciting to steer down a twisty road. The Turbo is considerably better, but somehow it still falls short from the standard set by its GTI and GLI cousins. There's a palpable sensation of VERY BIG WHEELS on all corners, the steering substitutes weight for feel, and the brakes won't last long when the relatively modest 200-horsepower direct-injected four-cylinder is pushing the Beetle along.

Of course, Volkswagen doesn't have to confront the MINI Cooper S dead-on with the Beetle Turbo. They have the GTI to do that. The main reason to step up to the forced-induction 2.0 is simple: It's more than fast enough to keep up with traffic, while the 2.5 automatic faces some challenges in that respect. Our test route forced us to make a ninety-degree left turn from a dead stop onto a steeply uphill, 55 mph four-lane, and in those circumstances the base model simply felt overmatched, groaning along without generating much acceleration. The Turbo had no trouble getting up to speed.

The fog of history has obscured the fact that the original Beetles weren't really all that economical for vehicles of their size and engine capacity. The new Beetle is no different. The 2.5 automatic returns 29 highway mpg, as does the six-speed Turbo. Only the Turbo DSG reaches the magic 30 mpg mark" and we mean that ironically, because nowadays 40 mpg, not 30 mpg, is the magic mark. Blame it on increased frontal area and two engines which aren't even close to being the most efficient or powerful in their classes.

If you can look past the mileage, you may find the Beetle to be a very satisfying commuter car. It's interesting both inside and out, the sunroof and painted interior trim are extremely pleasant, and what little wind noise there is can be easily drowned out by the excellent audio systems. VW is also claiming significantly increased reliability for this sixth-generation Golf platform, so the multiple glitches which plagued the old New Beetle throughout its lifetime may be happily absent.

Leftlane's bottom line

While it's still an acquired taste, and it still can't quite compete with the non-retro current generation of small cars, VW's newest Beetle fixes most of the old model's problems while introducing an exciting new look and the latest technology.

It's not just a nod to the past; it's an improvement on it.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle base price range, $18,995 to $29,095.

Words and photos by Jack Baruth.