Car reviews - Volkswagen - Beetle - range
Sweet engine, slick transmissions, rorty performance, steering feel, improved packaging, high equipment levels, reduced ‘twee’ levels
Room for improvement
Skittish rear end over bumpy corners, heavy-handed styling, no diesel option, $2.5K price hike
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15 Feb 2013
LIKE Monika Lewinsky, the Macarena and referring to rain on your wedding day as ironic, the last New Beetle belonged firmly in the 1990s, despite stumbling on to 2011.
Yes, it was cool for five seconds around the New Millennium, but unlike the Dot.com Crash, this automotive fad didn’t die quick enough. Heck, even Friends was over by 2004.
But Germans being the niche-exploiting experts that they are, VW couldn’t just leave well enough alone when it was clear the New Beetle had turned into a social embarrassment.
So here’s the “The Beetle” – perhaps the most infuriating name in motoring (after the Kia C’eed).
With a ’60s original and a VW Baja Bug plonked beside them for inspiration, the Wolfsburg stylists threw away the protractors and compasses from the last time, creating a lower, wider, longer and flatter-roofed retromobile.
It looks less caricature-like and a whole lot less twee than previously, with slightly more convincing visual connections to the original, but this is still a modern pastiche of dubious shelf-life longevity.
Inside, progress has been much better, mainly because of the dramatically improved packaging brought about by the extra dimensions and proportional rethink.
Now, the windscreen base isn’t far away like a distant horizon people with heads and feet can now comfortably use the twin rear seats and luggage capacity has improved significantly.
Fans of the ‘Typ-1’ Beetle will recognise the flat horizontal fascia with its hooded instrument binnacle and body-coloured orange-peel paint treatment that stretches to the door cards, and perhaps even appreciate the (near useless) lidded rectangular compartment that resides above a more conventional hinged glovebox.
Along with the still-domed (but by not nearly as much) roof and corresponding window line, the ambience is distinctively modern Bug.
Great front seats, a decent driving position, plenty of ventilation, easy rear-bench entry, sufficiently comfy cushions in the back, heaps of storage places and cupholders, and all the VW parts-bin switches and controls means there is a well-oiled richness to the way today’s Beetle is presented, matched by a lift in quality due to the binning of most cheapo plastics.
Vision is unexpectedly good due to more upright pillars, deep side windows, and a large rear glass area.
But in the $32,290 Sport Pack DSG we drove first up, with additional auxiliary dials plonked where a shallow dash-top recess would otherwise reside, any premium pretences were obliterated by squeaky ill-fitment.
This included rattley door trim as the 18-inch low-profile tyres transmitted bumps as well as noise into the cabin the moment the road surface showed the first sign of creasing or cracking.
We’ve driven a good many different modern VWs, Audis and Skodas sharing variations of the Beetle’s PQ35 platform, and all but this car boast a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension that does much to keep the car feeling planted yet controlled.
But Wolfsburg’s bean-counters clearly think Beetle owners aren’t worthy of such refinement, because VW has fitted a simpler (if lighter and space-saving) torsion beam axle instead.
We wonder whether most buyers will notice or even care if they’re not familiar with how a similarly tyred Golf glides over the sort of bumps that ever-so-slightly knock the Beetle’s tail off line, but the Sport Pack’s larger wheel package amplifies the effect.
Find a smooth road, though, and you’ll wonder why we’re fussing. The newcomer’s steering feel is commendably linear, the handling nicely responsive yet controlled, and the roadholding tenacious. This isn’t a bad car at all from behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel.
If you own a petrol-powered version of the old New Beetle (besides the rorty 1.8-litre turbo of a decade ago), the 118TSI Twincharger engine will be nothing short of a revelation.
This unit is a shining example of why VW is sitting pretty at the moment, being quiet, sweet, smooth and yet plenty strong in its torque delivery from near standstill to the 6500rpm rev limiter thanks to the seamless integration of both a turbo and supercharger.
You would never call the Beetle sporty – let alone a sportscar – but this engine adds a level of classy accomplishment to a series that has never known such a thing.
We would pick the slick six-speed manual over the quick-shifting seven-speed DSG dual-clutch auto every time, simply because changing gears is such a pleasure in the Beetle.
However, the inclusion of a Hill Start Assist goes some way in eliminating the jerkiness that afflicted earlier DSGs, so if you prefer an auto, it shouldn’t disappoint.
During our morning behind the wheel of the Beetle, we switched from the Sport Pack DSG to the base $29,990 118TSI manual, and found the mix of standard smaller 17-inch wheels and supple cloth seats a more comfortable proposition.
But the rear-end hop on busier roads seemed worse – perhaps because the base tyres don’t have quite as much grip.
Finished in a retro pastel blue, the body-coloured bits inside weren’t as garish or pretentious in the entry-level car and got us thinking that maybe VW’s decision to significantly improve the equipment level in all Beetles (for a $2200 price increase) isn’t really in the spirit of the ‘people’s car’.
Not only is there nothing extra we’d need in the cheapest Beetle as it stands, but we’d take out a few unnecessary items and save some money in the process.
The latest Beetle is a massive improvement over its cynically conceived and utterly compromised 1999 predecessor.
However, the missing multi-link rear suspension and the drop in dynamic finesse that results, as well as the loose cabin trim in the hard-riding Sport Pack, are disappointing.
And we suspect there would be nothing especially cool about being seen in this Flower Power throwback, even if the Germans have mercifully banished the dreaded daisy vase.
A Golf is cheaper and frankly miles ahead in virtually every department.
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