To know how the 2012 VW Beetle performs, you have to think of it as two vehicles wearing the same nameplate. One's essentially a coupe version of VW's swift, spunky GTI.
The other Beetle? It's duller around the edges, more comfortably sprung--a little more true to the Pillsbury softness of its sheetmetal. The base Beetle has much in common with the VW Jetta: they're built alongside each other, share a 170-horsepower five-cylinder engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, and use a less-expensive torsion-beam suspension to cut cost without cutting into the VW performance image too much.
The result is gentle acceleration and middling fuel economy, a combo platter that tastes wan next to the likes of the MINI Cooper, and even Ford's base Mustang. The Beetle fires up with the offbeat, blatty rap all five-cylinders share, and pushing it through the responsive automatic's paces doesn't create much excitement. It's capable of generic 8-second 0-60 mph times, accompanied by the usual five vibrations. Steering feel is light, but hydraulically actuated, so it's predictable and hooks progressively as the Bug bobbles on its base suspension, with a fair amount of body roll.
The Beetle Turbo--ah, now that's more like it. If you've driven a GTI, the flat blast of torque from VW's 2.0-liter turbocharged four is as welcome as it is familiar, and its three bonus gauges for boost, timing and oil pressure are the perfect semi-kitsch addition. With most of the 207 pound-feet of torque on offer from 2500 rpm, the Beetle Turbo drops the 0-60 mph times to well under 8 seconds. It's more vocal than ever, but the noises seem endearing here, more viscerally happy than the euthanized five. The rear suspension gets an upgrade to multiple links, which flattens out the handling and beefs up the Beetle's grip, through 18-inch wheels and tires. There's still an appreciable amount of body roll, and the electric steering is good but not transparent, but the turbo Bug's ride is drawn tight enough to boost your interest in running it on boost as often as possible.
Turbo Beetles also come equipped with XDS, an electronic system that tries to simulate a locking differential. It's touted to minimize understeer, which the Beetle still has in warehouse-store quantities. If you're interested, bring a lot of that boost into a fast, tightly drawn corner.
The manual-shift Beetle was unavailable on our first drive; VW's paddle-shifted dual-clutch automatic nailed passing-speed shifts with its typical precision, but there's mild shift shock here that we've never felt in previous DSGs, and more of a tendency to catch the drivetrain off turbo boil when pulling into intersections and away from low-speed corners. The brakes give a bit too much travel but seemed to bite deeply enough around West Virginia switchbacks to make this Beetle more engaging and more serious than the bubbly old New Beetle ever was, even after you got it to stop giggling.