New & Used Volkswagen Beetle: In Depth
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Volkswagen reimagines the Beetle model lineup for 2016. Beetle 1.8T models now come in S, SE, and SEL trim levels, while 2.0L TDI Clean Diesel and R-Line models have SE and SEL trim. VW is also offering a new MIB II infotainment system with five or 6.3-inch touchscreens and, finally, a USB port. VW also adds an Automatic Post-Collision Braking System this year that applies the brakes when a collision is detected to reduce the possibility of a second impact and more damage.
Based on the Volkswagen Golf, the Beetle can be had in coupe or convertible form. Engine options for both include a 170-horsepower turbo four, a 200-horsepower turbo four, and a 150-horse diesel. That gives VW the distinction of offering the only diesel-powered convertible in the U.S.
The current Beetle carries the 75-year-old iconic nameplate, but little else from its earliest ancestors. The Beetle falls into two distinct eras--the Bugs of the pre-1998 era and the completely new Beetles inspired by the original but based on Golf running gear.
MORE: Read our 2016 Volkswagen Beetle review
The revived VW New Beetle
When it was first reintroduced in 1998, the so-called New Beetle launched with a choice of a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder or VW's 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel (TDI) four making either 90 or 100 hp. With either engine, the Beetle provided reasonable pep, but it was not fast. The TDI engine was the pick of the two for frugal buyers, with highway mileage figures well into the 40s. For buyers who wanted more power, 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 to 2004, brought even stronger acceleration and more involvement, thanks to a 180-hp version of the 1.8T engine and a six-speed manual gearbox.
While the New Beetle was an obvious update to the beloved original, it differed in several very important ways. The New Beetle used a water-cooled engine up front, powering the front wheels, while the classic Bug had an air-cooled engine in back driving the rear axle. The New Beetle also shared many parts with the Audi A4 and VW Passat of the time. Its shape and details like the dash-mounted bud vase provided the character of the old car, easily setting it apart from its low-cost contemporaries.
For 2006, Volkswagen phased out the four-cylinder engines and introduced a 170-hp, 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine, mated to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. This engine was reasonably strong and worked well with the automatic transmission, though it didn't feel as sporty and eager as the turbo four that preceded it. In any of these New Beetle models, ride quality was quite smooth. Turbo S models were among the sportiest, but otherwise handling wasn'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 made sense long after the coupes seemed dated, as the open-top versions made great cruisers and were an affordable upgrade to the Sebrings and Solaras that were 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. To make matters worse, 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.
Today's VW Beetle
The current generation 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 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–present 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 three 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 can 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 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. Upon its release, the full range of engines included 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 automatic transmissions available. The 140-hp, 2.0-liter TDI diesel joined the family a few months later, making it the highest efficiency Beetle, rated at up to 41 mpg highway.
Compared to that of the New Beetle it replaced, the current car's interior is decidedly less quirky, if no less well designed. The dash-mounted bud vase is gone, making the car a bit more gender-neutral, and VW has brought back the double-decker glovebox of the original car. All of the controls are well laid out within a pleasing and mildly retro design. And the current car is plenty of fun to bop through traffic in or let loose on a two-lane. The exterior design means it's hard for some to find the ends of the car, but it's a tidy size that's easy to judge all the same, and forward visibility has been improved in this generation.
Today's Beetle continues the tradition of special-edition models, though. Coinciding 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. They were offered only for a limited time. The Beetle also offers heritage-design wheels, which look like steel wheels with shiny hubcaps but are in fact alloys with domed centers.
For 2015, the Beetle got two new engines. The diesel engine was replaced with a new turbodiesel of the same size making 10 more horsepower and adding a bit more efficiency. The EPA highway figure now reaches 41 mpg for both manual and automatic models, and city numbers have increased by a few mpg. The new engine continues to offer effortless torque and makes a good companion for those using their Beetle for long-range cruising. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder gave way to a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder making the same horsepower but with better fuel economy.
Also for 2015, Volkswagen added an entry Beetle Classic model, with a price $1,500 lower than that of the least expensive 1.8T automatic model. It featured 17-inch Heritage wheels, the 170-hp 1.8T, a six-speed automatic transmission, navigation, two-tone leatherette/cloth front seats, and several other items. Classic coupes started around $21,000.
Volkswagen has announced it will indeed create a follow-up to the current Beetle. The next generation could include an EV model. The company also showed a quartet of concepts at the 2015 New York Auto Show, any of which could be turned into a special-edition model in the near future.