Since it's virtually impossible not to wax nostalgic over the introduction of Volkswagen's new Beetle, I won't even try to fight it. After all, those of us who either owned or drove the old Beetle during the socially and politically turbulent '60s and '70s generally have fond memories of the car.
In a complex and confusing age, it represented sound values that many found in short supply at the time. It was humble, simple, dependable and economical. For many, it was just about the only unchanging constant amidst the frightening flux of cultural chaos.
For those who may have embraced Eastern religions during that time, the new Beetle probably reinforces their belief in reincarnation. If nothing else, the new Beetle proves, as noted in Volkswagen's press kit, "that something very good in a past life can come back as something even better, something totally new."
While the shape is certainly similar, the new Beetle is much larger than the original, both inside and out. And if you're hoping the shift knob you salvaged from your old Beetle will fit the new one, forget it. Not a single part from the previous car has been carried over.
Instead of a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car, the new Beetle is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car. Power comes from either a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder or a 90-hp Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) diesel.
When faced with a similar choice 20 years ago, when VW Rabbits were still on the market, you were wise to pick the gas engine if you wanted any kind of performance. This time, the decision goes to the diesel. Not only does it deliver more low-end torque (149 pound-feet vs. 122), but you can drive it from Chicago to Tulsa on a single tank.
EPA mileage figures for the gas-powered Beetle are 23 city/29 highway with the manual, 22 city/27 highway with the automatic. The manual diesel, however, boasts enviable ratings of 41 city/48 highway. Even with manual, the diesel gets 34 city/44 highway.
1999 Volkswagen Beetle
Inside, the old Beetle provided a spartan interior with only the bare necessities. Look around the cabin of the new Beetle, and you'll find such modern amenities as dual power mirrors, six-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo, beverage holders, tilt/telescope steering wheel, illuminated visor vanity mirrors and an antitheft alarm system.
Modern features you won't notice at first glance are halogen projector-beam headlights, CFC-free air conditioning, a pollen and odor filter for the ventilation system and such features as ABS brakes, alloy wheels, cruise control, CD player, leather seats, fog lamps, heated front seats, one-touch power windows and integrated fog lamps.
There are a couple of touches that bring the old Beetle to mind. The seats can only be adjusted manually. A large side lever raises and lowers the seat (short people rejoice!), a fore-and-aft adjuster is below the right knee, and a large notched knob allows you to recline the seatback — if you're a contortionist. We may be picking nits here, but it seems to be located too far back for most people to reach with any ease.
While we're complaining a bit, the ubiquitous overhead "grab handle" was noticeably absent, though VW does provide a meaty cross-bar on the dash, which you can grasp in case of emergency. Only problem is, it's two feet away, too far for most people to reach.
Steering is solid and precise, and the brakes tight and responsive. In fact, a bit too responsive at first; they tended to lock up under firm pressure (without ABS). We hope the grabbiness wears off with use. On the plus side, the car accelerates smoothly and purposefully (when equipped with a manual five-speed) and is as quiet as a tomb inside, until you pass the 80-mph marker.
During an hour or so of driving, the car was greeted warmly by fellow motorists. Smiles, nods and thumbs-up signs were the order of the day when people spotted our shiny red Bug. It seems advance media coverage over the past few weeks did a good job of preparing the public for the new Beetle's arrival.
While we stopped to purchase camera batteries, a crowd quickly assembled to admire the car. It seems the "basic transportation" profile of the old Beetle remains firmly intact. After inquiring about the car's introduction date (late March), nearly all wanted to know what the fuel mileage would be.
There should be no question about the appeal of this new Beetle. It possesses the same kind of charisma and charm as the old Beetle did. It's small and adorable, sure to become an instant collector's item.
You might call it a Beanie Baby on wheels.