The outgoing VW Beetle survived with only minor tweaks for an unlucky 13 years. That’s long enough for most cars to be replaced twice, so the newly launched 2012 Beetle has some catching up to do. It arrives with at least one big plus point in its favour: it looks a lot better than its blobby predecessor.
To find out if there’s a modern car lurking beneath the retro body, we climbed aboard a Beetle in Design 1.4 trim, a £19,470 edition that VW predicts will be the UK’s best seller.
The outgoing 1999 Beetle was a cartoonish car that exuded a strong whiff of hair salon. For the latest Beetle, VW’s designers have shelved the last iteration and gone back to the air-cooled era for their shapes and proportions, but have then contorted them into a sort of rakish coupe.
The car is now 15cm longer, 1.2cm lower and 8cm wider than the previous Beetle, helping to give it a more purposeful and hunkered stance. Inside, the dashboard is an upright plank of plastic, also inspired by those ancient Beetles of yore, although the instruments are clear and conventional, no longer squeezed into a retro single dial.
Despite aping a utilitarian vehicle from 1938, the latest Beetle is clearly intended to be seen as a sleek and sporty coupe. You notice this aspiration as soon as you climb aboard: the door glass is now frameless and the window pane thunks down loudly the moment you tug the doorhandle.
Inside, the new Beetle feels comfortably snug. The shallow windscreen is much nearer than in the outgoing car, so there’s no longer a yard of ugly plastic stretching ahead of you. The relatively upright screen also means the front pillars are closer and less intrusive, although the over-the-shoulder view remains abysmal, full of thick, swooping plastic.
Performance & handling
Fortunately the Beetle is only retro in looks. Under the skin it’s a conventional front-wheel drive car closely related to the VW Golf. The 1.4-litre four-pot petrol engine in our test car can rustle up 160PS (158bhp) at 5800rpm, which is sufficient to whisk the Beetle to 62mph in 8.3 seconds. Flat out it’ll do 129mph
The engine feels zippy and responsive, if not exactly linear. The 1.4 TSI unit employs a belt-driven supercharger to boost power at low revs, plus an exhaust-driven turbocharger at higher revs. The pair are supposed to blend seamlessly, but on the move it’s pretty clear when the turbo wakes up.
Keeping the engine zinging can be great fun. Cornering is poised and the six-speed gearbox shifts cleanly, but the electrically assisted steering rubs away any sporting feel, so it doesn’t feel as rewarding as it perhaps could.
Economy & environment
The 1.4 Design model turns in an official consumption result of 42.8mpg on the combined cycle, which is pretty good given the amount of vim on offer. CO2 emissions of 153g/km put the car in Band G where a tax disc costs an affordable ￡165.
In the UK, a choice of five engines will be offered when the full range is available. At launch our 1.4 TSI is offered alongside a 1.2-litre 105PS version of the same engine. Later they will be joined by a 2.0-litre 200PS TSI petrol option, a 140PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel, and finally a 105PS 1.5-litre diesel in fuel-saving BlueMotion trim. The BlueMotion car should score 65.7mpg and 112 g/km.
Equipment & value
The £16,490 base model Beetle 1.2 TSI comes reasonably equipped with essentials like aircon and remote central locking, and 16-inch steel wheels. A DAB digital stereo is standard, with eight speakers and an aux-in socket for connecting music players. Two centre-console sockets provide handy power. The only transmission option is currently a seven-speed double-clutch auto.
Design trim provides an improved touch-screen DAB stereo with a six-CD autochanger, MP3 compatibility, an SD Card reader, USB, aux-in and Bluetooth. Leather wraps the wheel, gearlever and handbrake, although the seats remain cloth.
Heated leather upholstery requires £2,125 of additional commitment, while bright Xenon headlamps command ￡700 and cruise control another £235. A £495 Fender audio upgrade adds, among other things, a socking great subwoofer to the boot. And given the poor rear view and bulbous wings, £335 spent on parking sensors is probably a wise investment.
Design trim can be ordered with the 1.2 engine and auto box, or the 1.4 engine and manual gears, for £18,895 and £19,470 respectively. The top of the range Sport trim, in 1.4 manual only, brings many of the above extras prefitted and costs from £21,220.
The Beetle’s 1.4-litre engine also powers the more obviously sporty VW Golf GT, where it proves not only 0.3 seconds quicker to 62mph but also at least £1,855 more expensive, making the 160PS Beetle a distinct performance bargain.
All Beetles come with ABS brakes, ESP stability, traction control and an electronic differential lock, so if you end up facing the wrong way it’s probably your own fault.
Euro NCAP gave the new car five stars after smashing several examples to bits in May 2011, awarding it 92% for adult occupant protection, 90% for child protection and an adequate 53% when tangling with unwary pedestrians. These results are good but not quite as reassuring as the 2009 VW Golf, unless you’re a toddler.
The Beetle’s unique visual style is likely to divide opinion. Some may see it as pointless throwback or simply as a Golf in drag, but those who find the looks appealing will also discover plenty of other reasons to warm to the new car.
The latest Beetle is keenly priced, safe and quick three-door coupe that’s a fair bit of fun to drive. And that’s a sentence that would never have applied to any of this Beetle’s forebears.
Model tested: VW Beetle Design 1.4 TSI 160PS
Engine: 1.4-litre petrol
Acceleration: 0-62 in 8.3 seconds
Top speed: 129mph
Emissions: 153g/km CO2