Photos courtesy of Volkswagen of America.
If you read my review of Volkswagen’s 2012 Golf R, you already know I found it to be a bit of a let down. The R isn’t a bad car by any means, but it didn’t quite stack up quite the way I’d hoped it would. No small part of that is due to the other two cars I drove the same day. In fact, if the Golf R had been the only performance Volkswagen in the bunch, I probably would have thought much more highly of it. After all, just about anything can be good in a vacuum. But the R won’t exist on its own as a sporty compact in this market. Indeed, it won’t even exist as such in its own showroom. For 2012, Volkswagen will sell no fewer than four compact cars powered by some variant of their two-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder–the aforementioned Golf R, the GTI, the new MkVI GLI, and the new (lower case “n”) Beetle.
That’s right, Volkswagen has ditched the “New.” For 2012, it’s just Beetle. It makes sense if you think about it; the New Beetle hasn’t really lived up to its name since 1997. And while the revived icon soldiered on gracefully for nearly 14 years without a major overhaul, it was losing a bit of its luster. The dated platform and lack of enthusiast drive train options (the Turbo model was dropped after 2005) meant the cars built in the waning years of the New Beetle’s production run were destined for the driveways of teenaged girls and nostalgic boomers. And now? Well, let’s put it this way: Neither Beetle I’ve driven has been equipped with a dash-mounted flower vase.
What can you get? Let’s start with the basics. You have two engine and chassis configurations to choose from, and there’s no interchanging them. The base model includes Volkswagen’s now-ubiquitous 2.5L inline five-cylinder engine in its usual 170hp configuration. With this, you get the same torsion beam rear end (Volkswagen’s words, not mine) that has been a fixture of many lukewarm reviews of the MkVI Jetta. You have your choice of a 5-speed manual or 6-speed Tiptronic gearbox, both of which do their respective jobs quite well. If you opt for the aforementioned 200-horsepower Turbo model however, you get a fully-independent, multi-link rear suspension, an additional gear in the manual, and VW’s quick-shifting DSG in place of the tip-shift auto. Volkswagen also plans to introduce their critically-acclaimed, 2.0L turbo-diesel engine later in 2012, catching the Beetle up to the Golf and Jetta in engine choices. Unfortunately, all of the Beetles available to us were equipped with automatic transmissions.
If you’re starting to wonder if the Beetle Turbo is simply a GTI in a drag, you’re not far off the mark. The Beetle is a little softer and heavier than the GTI, but it’s still a fairly credible performance machine; you even get the same XDS “electronic differential” system. But the Beetle just isn’t quite as sharp or playful. To make a more familiar comparison, the Beetle Turbo feels a bit closer in overall dynamics to the Golf TDI than the GTI. There can only be one, right?
Fortunately, the base car puts its suspension-sister, the Jetta, to complete shame. While neither will light the world on fire in the handling or ride quality departments, the Beetle is far and away the more eager of the two. The Jetta’s heavy-at-all-the-wrong-times steering effort and feeling of excessive size aren’t found here. It never feels awkwardly large from behind the wheel the way the Jetta does. Steering feel is still lacking, unfortunately, as seems to be happening more and more in modern Volkswagens. Neither the base car nor the Turbo shines in this regard
It’s not all good news though. While the Turbo’s brakes inspire confidence, the base car’s stopping power isn’t nearly as comforting. It may simply be down to tire compound, but it’s something to consider. And of course, a solid rear end is a solid rear end, and high speed bumps–especially those that aren’t uniform across the road surface–will upset the Beetle’s otherwise silky highway demeanor. Surface streets are hit or miss. At certain speeds, the rear end is easily forgotten. At others, the Volkswagen pops and dips awkwardly, with an accompanying unpleasant, boomy resonance in the cabin. It’s rare, but noticeable considering how effectively Volkswagen otherwise isolates road noise and surface imperfections.
Fortunately, our longer-term evaluation vehicle came equipped with the fantastic Fender audio system, about which I have nothing but great things to say. Under the brandwashing, the head unit is actually designed and tuned by Panasonic, and it’s worth every penny, though you do lose some hatch real estate to the sub-woofer. With the stereo cranked, the occasional unpleasant aural intrusion is easily drowned out.
Inside, with few exceptions, it’s a Volkswagen through and through–clinical and comfortable. The seats are firm but supportive, shod with V-tex leatherette in all 2.5L models. If you spring for the Turbo, you get cloth seats standard with leather-clad sport seats as an option. Breaking up the might-as-well-be-a-Jetta interior is the Beetle’s party piece. The dash, door panels and gauge hood are now available in either gloss or carbon-look trim painted to match the car’s exterior color. And yes, they’ve brought back the kaeferfach or “Beetle bin,” which is Volkswagenese for “A second glove box situated on the upper dash to the front of which we can fasten a genuine aluminum handle that we will later pass around at press events.” And while body-painted plastic trim on the inside of a car is usually just a clever way for manufacturers to get away with cheap, high-gloss interior plastics, I have to say it works here better than it does in, say, a Nissan Juke. The only other car I can think of that pulls it off this well is the Fiat 500.
Speaking of the little Americanized Italian, I suspect that these two cars will be the subject of comparisons in the coming months, and let me be the first to tell you that they have very little in common. The Fiat, like the Mini, is a true subcompact. The Beetle, like its Golf and Jetta relatives, could easily qualify as mid-size. Just for kicks, I parked the Beetle next to our 2005 Focus 5-Door last night and was alarmed to find that the Volkswagen is actually bigger. They’re equal in length, but the Volkswagen’s cartoonish fender flares and Jetta-influenced underpinnings translate to a waistline that is a full 4.5 inches wider than our Ford’s. And while you could simply chalk that up to generational bloat, it’s worth noting that it’s still almost an inch and a half wider than its platform mates. Them’s some big hips. So while the 500, Cooper and Beetle may all offer similar levels of Taylor Swift crowd exterior appeal, the Italian and the almost-Brit are delicate purses to Volkswagen’s massive satchel.
The verdict? I was pleasantly surprised, quite frankly. While the New Beetle was never a bad car, it hasn’t really held its ground in the cute car niche since neighbor BMW revived the Mini brand for the United States market. Enthusiasts have largely ignored it since the Turbo and Turbo-S models dried up. Even in the VW community, it ranks a distant third to the turbocharged fourth-generation GTI and Jetta models that share its underlying architecture. Those hoping for a budget alternative to a two-door GTI will be disappointed, as the Turbo’s price advantage is only a few hundred dollars, but at least it presents another option for those who aren’t fans of the traditional hatchback or sedan styling offered by its siblings.
The author drove the 2012 Beetle Turbo at a manufacturer-sponsored event to which many members of the automotive media were invited. The non-turbo model was a press vehicle also provided by Volkswagen.