2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S

0204 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S 02

Phoenix, Arizona-- The Volkswagen New Beetle is in danger of being relegated to the same place in the American public's collective mind as Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp: still good for a moment's amusement now and then but otherwise rather irrelevant. Internet-exclusive paint colors go only so far to maintain an aging car's appeal. VW needs new variants to stir buyers' interest--and New Beetle sales.

Enter the Turbo S, which went on sale in January with a 180-horsepower version of VW's 1.8-liter turbo four. The extra power is immediately noticeable, coming on in a fluid, linear rush through the wide torque band. The clutch take-up for the new six-speed manual is as smooth as crme brle, but the downshift from fourth to third is not. During our test drive into the mountains near Phoenix, we reserved fifth and sixth gears for freeway loping, finding that fourth was ideal between 60 and 90 mph once the roads started dipping and curving. Sixty miles per hour arrives in 7.4 seconds, a full second faster than with the regular, 150-horse 1.8T. Make no mistake, this is a great engine.

0204 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S 01

Like most current VWs, though, the New Beetle needs additional damping more than additional power. The Turbo S rides on standard, and very cool, seventeen-inch wheels, but there are no changes to the Beetle's stock four-wheel independent suspension, which VW claims is inherently a "sport" setup. Maybe that's so if your idea of sport is golfing. Autocrossers will want to swap out the all-season tires and place a call to Tokico. The steering is similarly unchanged from previous models, but it's tight and just about right. Skid control is standard--a Volkswagen first.

0204 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S 04

At $23,950, the Turbo S is the most expensive--but also the most stylish--New Beetle model ever, its seats draped with copious two-tone leather and its cabin decorated with brushed-aluminum trim. The New Beetle will never again provoke the fervor it did four years ago, but the Turbo S and the New Beetle convertible, which arrives this fall, at least ought to recall the glory days of 1998.

A few exterior cues denote the top Beetle: the Turbo S script on the trunk lid; the reshaped rear fascia, which loses the ungainly license plate cutout of lesser Beetles and gains dual chromed exhaust tips; and, up front, the round turn signals winking next to the headlights.

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