New & Used Volkswagen Beetle: In Depth
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The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the oldest car models in world, dating back 75 years now. But its current iteration--the second "new beetle" since the original--is a new generation that was all new for 2012. It was launched as a three-door hatchback, and a two-door cloth-roofed convertible joined it for 2013. Either model carries instant recognition and a great deal of history with it.
Today's VW Beetle carries its engine in the front, powering the front wheels--unlike the original, which used a clattery but reliable air-cooled flat-four engine at the rear, driving the rear wheels. Like the previous New Beetle before it, the underpinnings come from the VW Golf and Jetta models, despite the very different bodywork. Compared to the long-lived New Beetle, the completely revamped 2012 Beetle adopts a new look that's flatter, a bit more aggressive, and a bit larger than before. Its more muscular stance comes from an additional 3 inches of width.
The VW Beetle today is aimed at a specific market segment. It's also more complicated and pricier than the original, meaning it's less about cheap and cheerful transportation than a "lifestyle car" whose owners prize attitude, style, and perhaps even whimsy. It doesn't compete any longer with higher-volume, boxier, more practical, lower-cost alternatives that cna be found everywhere. The Beetle competes with a variety of such cars, from the legendary Ford Mustang coupe all the way down to high-design minicars like the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 lines. All those competitors, it should be noted, offer both a coupe and a cloth-roofed convertible in their lineups.
The 2013 Beetle Convertible and Coupe share the same powertrain options, giving the Convertible the distinction of being the sole diesel-powered droptop for sale in the U.S. this year. Its soft top is power-operated and can be opened or closed in under 10 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph. The full range of engines includes a 170-horsepower five-cylinder engine, with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission powering the front wheels, and a turbocharged 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter four (2.0T) with a choice of manual or dual-clutch automatics available. Then there's the 140-hp 2.0-liter TDI diesel that joined the family a few months later; it's the highest efficiency Beetle, rated at up to 41 mpg highway.
The interior of today's Beetle is less quirky and more businesslike than that of last decade's New Beetle. A suitably straightforward Teutonic dashboard conveys information and has fairly easy-to-understand minor controls. But for a lifestyle car, the Beetle turns out to be remarkably fun to drive--as are most VWs--and can be hustled along twisting country roads with aplomb. Just remember that the rounded front end means that most drivers won't be able to see the extremities of the car, although visibility out the windshield is better in the latest version than in the New Beetle, which seemed to have several feet of dashboard between the instruments and the base of the windshield.
When it was first introduced in 1998, the New Beetle launched with a choice of a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder or a 90-hp or 100-hp version of VW's 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel (TDI) four. With either engine, the Beetle was reasonably quick but not fast; the TDI engine was the pick of the two for frugal buyers, with highway mileage figures well in the 40s. For buyers who wanted more performance, VW introduced a 1.8T model in 1999; its 150-hp gasoline turbo four gave the New Beetle much more enthusiastic performance, without using much more fuel than the base engine. A Turbo S model, offered only from 2002-2004, brought even better performance, with a 180-hp version of the engine and six-speed manual gearbox.
While the New Beetle may have looked like an updated classic, it broke the mold in several ways. Unlike the original, the New Beetle had a water-cooled engine up front, driving the front wheels. In fact, many of its underpinnings were shared with the Audi A4 and Volkswagen Passat of the day. Its cutesy details, including the functional flower vase hanging from the dashboard, lent the New Beetle an instant charisma that few budget-priced cars then had.
For 2006, Volkswagen phased out the four-cylinder engines and introduced the 170-hp, 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine, with a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. This engine is reasonably strong and works well with the automatic transmission, though it doesn't feel as sporty and eager as the turbo four that preceded it. In any of these New Beetle models, ride quality is quite smooth. Turbo S models are among the sportiest, but otherwise handling isn't particularly inspiring.
In Coupes, back seat space was too cramped for adults but good enough for a couple of smaller kids. Convertible models, introduced for 2003, have slightly less backseat space but a well-configured, triple-layer electric soft top; in its later years, New Beetle Convertibles have made sense long after the Coupes have seemed dated, as the open-top versions make great cruisers and are an affordable upgrade to the Sebrings and Solaras that are so common in rental fleets.
The design of the New Beetle changed very little over the years and, many feel it didn't age well. What's more, VW squeezed out a little more of the feature content each year, meaning that many of the features once offered on the Beetle—including leather upholstery, fog lamps, and rain-sensing wipers—simply vanished. Special-edition models followed special trim and color schemes, as well as flashy wheels, though these models didn't offer many additional features. Over the years, the Beetle's crash-test scores were lackluster. For 2010, the Final Edition New Beetle offered special paintwork and unique-to-the-model 17-inch wheels, as well as standard electronic stability control and fog lamps.The new Beetle continues the tradition of special-edition models, though. Along with the Convertible's launch in 2013, Volkswagen announced a range of decades-inspired design and styling packages, with themes from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.