Ann Arbor- Convincing evidence that an old dog can learn a new trick, the tediously familiar Volkswagen New Beetle makes its eighth year of production a whole lot more interesting with one very tricky option: the remarkable direct-shift gearbox (DSG). Debuting to acclaim in the 2004 Audi TT 3.2 Quattro, DSG radically shortens shift times by anticipating and preselecting the next gear. With one gear driving the wheels and another poised to take over when the computer (or the driver) gives the nod, the act of shifting becomes a lightning-quick relay race. Two clutches alternately open and close as one gear after another goes from at-bat to on-deck status in a scant two-tenths of a second, with no interruption of the torque flow during full-throttle acceleration.
Named our 2005 All-Star Technology, DSG is set to grace a host of upmarket vehicles in the coming months and years, including the Bugatti Veyron 16.4. For now, however, the Bug marks its first mass-market foray. (Admittedly, mass-market may be a bit of a stretch: the only New Beetle available with DSG is the coupe, and only with the turbocharged direct-injection diesel engine.)
Revised last year, the New Beetle's TDI diesel is good for 99 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. Although certainly more enthusiastic than the old TDI, the new one still won't set enthusiasts' hearts aflutter. But DSG (a $1075 option) goes a long way toward making this engine as fun as it is frugal. The Beetle makes do without the Audi's steering-wheel shift paddles, so manual selection of gears requires the ol' Tiptronic push-pull of the shifter itself. For those who decide to forgo freedom of choice, a very savvy Sport mode winds the engine closer to its 4750-rpm redline before upshifting and will gladly hold a lower gear to keep revs high and turbo boost just a nudge of the throttle away.
DSG won't make the New Beetle TDI the street racer's weapon of choice, but it does make it attractive for drivers who care about more than fuel economy-42 mpg has never been so much fun.