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.