After a decades-long run that made it one of the world’s favorite cars, the Volkswagen Beetle was resurrected as the Golf-based New Beetle in 1998. It was warmly embraced (mostly by U.S. buyers), but not for long. The initial frenzy saw sales shoot past 80,000 units and then swan dive to fewer than 20,000 by 2010. Volkswagen’s somewhat surprising move to give its retro machine a second act has resulted in the all-new (but no longer capital n New) Beetle for 2012, which the company would like you to think of as less cute and much sportier but still retro.
The wider, longer, and squatter body shape actually hews more closely to the original Beetle. [See VW design chief Klaus Bishoff’s comments on the design here. At the same time, it also manages to be more Speedster and less clown car. Whether it achieves VW’s oft-stated goal of being more masculine is a question observers can answer for themselves. One thing is for sure: There’s no bud vase this time.
The car is offered as the Beetle and the Beetle Turbo, featuring Golf and GTI powertrains, respectively. Thus, the base car gets VW’s underwhelming 2.5-liter five-cylinder paired with a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. As in the GTI, the Turbo’s 2.0-liter 200-hp four-cylinder comes with your choice of a six-speed stick or a six-speed DSG automatic. There are four trim levels for the five-cylinder Beetle and three for the Beetle Turbo. For the press event, all the cars on hand were Beetle Turbos equipped with the DSG.
Enter the new Beetle and, once again, the driver sits low in the car unless the seat height is cranked up (all versions except the very most basic have 8-way manual adjustment). As before, there’s plenty of headroom — in front, at least. The more cab-rearward layout allows for good front legroom, and the wider body makes for a roomier-feeling interior. The cut-down side window opening, however, means that outward visibility isn’t as good as before. The biggest change when sitting behind the wheel, though, is that you’re no longer looking out over a vast expanse of dashboard through a steeply raked windshield that seems miles away. The driver now has a much more normal relationship with his (or her) surroundings. (VW hopes it will be “his” 59 percent of the time with this car. Only 35 percent of New Beetle buyers were male.)
Unfortunately, the experience for back-seat passengers has not been transformed. There’s a fraction of an inch more headroom, but it is still barely adequate for a six-footer. The bigger issue is minimal knee clearance. This is also a narrow space, strictly for two. Basically, a two-door Golf is a limo by comparison. The trunk, however, has grown significantly larger and is now a respectable 15 cubic feet, expandable to 30 cubic feet via a split rear seatback that folds but not all the way flat.
Back up front, the all-new instrument panel ditches the previous circle theme in favor of a three-gauges cluster and a flatter face that harks back to the original Beetle. Other retro touches include a second glove box with a flip-up lid and body-color panels on the dash and the tops of the doors. In the Turbo, however, the panels are shiny black instead, and the dash trim piece is a rather unconvincing faux carbon fiber; if you prefer body-color, you should be able to order it as an accessory and have your dealer swap it in. Unlike the cost-cut-to-the-bone Jetta, the Beetle interior has a pleasing mix of materials and textures. The one unforgivable bit of cost-cutting is that a center armrest is absent in the lower trim levels.
In keeping with the Turbo’s sporty aspirations, it has a thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel; a trio of auxiliary gauges atop the center dash; and firm seats with prominent lateral bolsters. There’s cloth upholstery in the first two trim levels and leather for the top-spec version. The cars we drove (and the ones in the pictures) had a large-size navigation screen that won’t come to the U.S. market; we’ll have the same 3.5-inch nav unit that’s found in the Golf; it’s on the top trim level of both Beetle models.
Mechanically, this car is a Golf, so it’s not surprising that the Beetle is quite good to drive. The 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder easily scoots the 3089-pound coupe to autobahn speeds, where the car is solid and planted. Boost is nicely integrated and throttle response is linear, and the XDS front differential from the GTI is on hand in the Turbo to better put the power to the ground. The DSG transmission’s determination to get you into the highest gear as soon as possible, however, means that the engine doesn’t feel particularly lively around town. One solution is to leave the lever in Sport rather than Drive; another would be to call the shots yourself (U.S. cars will have shift paddles); a third would be to skip the DSG altogether, saving yourself $1100 in the process.
The Beetle Turbo uses a damper-strut front suspension and a multilink setup at the rear, while the standard car makes do with a beam axle. The Beetle’s springs and dampers are tuned for a firmer ride than in the Golf, and the Turbo is even stiffer than the base Beetle. Then there’s an available sport suspension, a no-cost option that was fitted to our test car. Even in this maximum-sporty guise, the Beetle isn’t as hardcore as a GTI, but it was quite responsive through the few curves on our test route outside of Berlin. On the optional 19-inch wheels (which replace 18-inch wheels on the Turbo; the base car has different 18-inch wheels available in place of its standard 17-inch footwear), the Turbo rode pretty stiffly over the bits of patchy pavement in the grungier parts of the city. Strangely, the base car has hydraulic power assist for its steering and the Turbo gets electrically assisted power steering that is a bit light and largely devoid of feel.
So, the Beetle nestles between its more conventionally shaped stablemates in the way it drives and also in the way it’s priced. The base car stickers for $19,765 — $1000 more than a base Golf — while the Turbo starts at $24,165 ($300 less than a GTI), and tops out at around $30,000.
VW is moving much faster bringing out additional variants with this car. Come next summer, a TDI diesel version will arrive (with a five-speed manual or DSG and rated at 40 mpg highway). At the same, we’ll see a convertible, which will be sold with all three engines. Beyond that, there’s talk of a Beetle R with even more power and, potentially, all-wheel drive. It’s all part of VW’s plan to make this iteration of the Beetle more of a mainstream player rather than a fashion piece whose sales pop and then drop.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
Base price (with destination): $24,165
22 / 30 mpg
2.0L I-4 turbo
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque: 207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm
Curb weight: 3089 lb
Wheels, tires: 19-inch wheels, 235/40ZR19 ContiSportContact 3 tires