2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo: Driven

March 14, 2012
When the New Beetle arrived, back in 1998, it elicited waves of nostalgia from Baby Boomers who had owned the old air-cooled Beetles, and loved what they had come to symbolize. At the time of the New Beetle's launch, it was exactly what they wanted—a vehicle that carried forward the iconic image but rolled on a modern front-wheel drive layout and packed plenty of comforts and conveniences.

Unfortunately, that kind of intense, universal nostalgia only lasted a couple of years. After that—no matter what, it seemed—the New Beetle was a chick car. And the flower vase and soft contouring inside probably didn't help.

Now for 2012, the Beetle is back, completely redesigned, and while it's still very much a niche car, it's one that a typical American male won't be embarrassed to drive. In fact, it's one that's quite enjoyable to drive.

No more cute and cuddly, no more flower power

You might chuckle, but it takes only a passing glance to see that designers have tamped down the Beetle's feel-good, cute-and-cuddly side, instead focusing back to the original air-cooled Beetles and then bringing out the brawnier side of the Bug. It's roughly the same size, but all the lines are redrawn and the proportions are completely different. At first look, the new car looks a lot lower than the previous version. But the roofline is only a half-inch lower; it's the product of six inches of additional length and about three and a half inches more width.

In short, this is not a tweaked version of the previous New Beetle. Volkswagen has gone back to the original air-cooled Beetle and penned a new New Beetle—only this time they're only calling it the Beetle.

And it really does look a bit more like a sports car than before; we see just a little bit of Porsche 356 Speedster from some angles, and it definitely bears some likeness to the Audi TT Coupe.

Throughout the exterior, we appreciate Volkswagen's use of glossy black as an accent in the Beetle Turbo—in the bold five-spoke wheels, the side mirrors, as well as in the roof, back window, and rear spoiler. And while the faux-running boards serve to rob the Beetle of some interior space, it's nice to see them also blacked out, and used as more of a unifying design cue.

Much-improved interior layout, but trims could be better

Inside, the same glossy black contrast is echoed in the upper door trim as well as in the steering wheel, but the execution isn't nearly as solid. The glossy carbon-fiber facing across the dash looked okay visually from some angles, but it felt unsatisfying in combination with the hard plastics of the rest of the dash. Additionally, the Beetle gets a sort of simplified, dumbed-down screen interface compared to what's offered in the GTI, and we noticed that the matte-plastic materials around the climate, nav, and audio controls seemed prone to showing greasy fingerprints.

Thankfully though, in going to that upright layout, VW has gotten rid of the silly, vast expanse of plastic (the top of the dash) that would lay between the driver and the windshield in former New Beetle models.

Volkswagen has rolled out what's probably the Beetle's manliest personality from the start—that's the Beetle Turbo model, with the familiar 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four, making 207 pound-feet. That engine continues to churn out the torque at low rpms (except from standstill, where there's a measured pause to gather steam) and rev pretty responsively and smoothly up the rev range—with only a hint of lag. Volkswagen's usually excellent dual-clutch, automated manual DSG gearbox responded decisively to full-throttle acceleration, but it felt less fleet-footed in transitions, and uncertain when we suddenly went halfway into the throttle. The shifter's Sport mode seemed to introduce different shift points but didn't remedy the indecision. In the end, we couldn't tell if the difference was due to the Beetle's seemingly tall gear ratios or because VW might have dialed the unit's software-driven controls more to the conservative side.

Confident, responsive, more of a driver's car

The Beetle handles like what it is—a heavy but sporty and well-tuned front-wheel-drive coupe. Crisp, quick-ratio steering provides a confident, responsive feel—especially through the thick, flat-bottom steering wheel—with a firm but absorbent enough ride to match. The only surprise comes when you really push the Beetle hard into a corner and its springs prove a little softer than you might have expected; but on the bright side, the Beetle has the GTI's more sophisticated multi-link rear setup. Even though the GTI's tune still feels somewhat sharper, the Beetle does well putting on a front in this respect.

It's not all that fuel-efficient, though. EPA ratings are 22 mpg city, 30 highway, and we saw about 23 miles per gallon over 140 miles of driving in mixed conditions ranging from short-trip stop-and-go to a couple freeway blasts to the suburbs and back. In all fairness, none of it included much steady-speed cruising. Efficiency-minded shoppers should hold out for the TDI Beetle that's on the way later this year.

The back seat is still very much a 2+2. At 6'-6”, I started to wedge myself back there and then aborted, realizing it simply wasn't going to happen. In front though, there's much to love about the Beetle. Its driving position feels a little more upright this time around, with a good view outward in most directions—although rearward visibility is still a little challenging at times. Seats are sized to fit the 99 percent, and they include mild bolstering that should keep skinny drivers in place but not get in the way for wider proportions.

Still lacking some practicality

Cargo space is truly a weakness of the Beetle design. The body narrows at the back, and combined with wheel-well space it really pinches the space, width-wise; what's more, the enclosure for the available Fender premium sound system cuts further into the space so that you end up with a trunk that might not fit some large suitcases, in any direction.

One touch that you're probably going to like is the Beetle Turbo's exhaust note; we can tell that VW has put some effort into giving it more of a pulsating sound like that of the old air-cooled cars. That, plus the additional upper glovebox, were enough to tease out some nostalgia for a former Super Beetle owner.

Our test car also had a couple of persistent rattles—one having to do with the passenger-side door panel, the other possibly around the sound-system enclosure, which didn't seem to be fitting very well or tightly in that vehicle.

As for the sound of the new Fender system itself, it's clear, punchy, and well-rounded—neither the muddy, bass-heavy system that VW had gone to with its Monsoon systems years ago nor the overly crisp systems of recent years.

The 2012 Beetle starts at just $18,995—that's with the base five-cylinder engine, and we haven't yet driven this likely less-charming variant—but our test Beetle Turbo carried a bottom-line price of $29,685. And it did include navigation, a large panoramic sunroof, full leather, heated front seats, alloy pedals, Bluetooth, and the Fender sound system.

Design and charm have a price tag

Is still that a bargain or not? What it really amounts to is how you see the Beetle. If its styling and features, and its different, more daring look is what you want—but it doesn't matter that you don't have a full-fledged sports car, or even a car with serious performance chops—then the Beetle might be right for you. On the other hand, we see a lot of really well done interiors on inexpensive cars, and $30k seems high for the quality of the Beetle Turbo's interior trims.

The gist of it is that, with this car's better alignment with the GTI, the Beetle now feels more like the previous Audi TT from behind the wheel—a confident driving machine with a lot of design flare and attitude—than as an oddly laid-out vehicle that's living off the past. There's nothing embarrassing here, and the Beetle is straightforward and sporty; if a modern take on a classic design is your thing, there's no reason not to drive it and enjoy it.

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