By Steven Cole Smith
October 21, 2011
Let's clear this up first: When the Beetle was revived in 1998, Volkswagen called it the "New Beetle," which has been the model's official name since. But now that there really is a new New Beetle, VW has dropped the official "New" for 2012, so this is just the Beetle again.
But yes, it is new. VW has updated the New Beetle a few times, but the car was getting pretty long in the tooth by 2010 (there was no 2011 model), and the company actually considered dropping the Beetle entirely. Fortunately they reconsidered, recasting the Beetle in a slightly more masculine form that VW hopes will raise the percentage of male buyers. Gone, for example, is the little plastic flower vase on the dashboard.
The 2012 Beetle, especially in photos, looks sort of like a last-generation New Beetle that has been flattened a little. In person, it has a surprisingly strong presence, and our test car drew a lot of attention — about half the people who commented on it thought it was a customized New Beetle, while the rest knew it was an all-new car.
And it is — this is no mere facelift. Yes, there are familiar features from the last model, such as the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine, but this is a new car, about 3.3 inches wider and 6 inches longer than the New Beetle. This doesn't mean the Beetle is luxury car-sized, but the added length and width is welcome inside, especially the extra elbow room.
Inside, the 2012 Beetle has a great look. The dashboard on the test car matched the red exterior color, and instruments and gauges have a classy, contemporary look. The "leatherette" bucket seats were comfortable, though it took a lot of adjusting to find a comfortable position. Rear seats remain better for kids than adults. There is 15.4 cubic feet of luggage space, which almost doubles with the rear seat folded down.
The base engine has 170 horsepower, and transmission choice is a six-speed automatic or five-speed manual. Our car had the automatic, and it worked hard to maximize the engine's adequate power.
Far sportier is the smaller but more powerful 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower. The turbo engine actually gets better mileage than the base engine — an EPA-rated 22 mpg city, 30 mpg on the highway with the automatic transmission, compared to 20/29 with the powertrain in the test car. The turbo engine likes premium gas, but the base engine is fine with regular. A six-speed manual or automatic is offered with the turbo.
The Beetle was one of those cars that the more I drove it, the more I liked it, which is not uncommon on German cars. (Or, at least, cars designed in Germany — the Beetle is built in Mexico, as was the last generation.) Handling is very good, steering is precise but a little light, and the brakes are excellent. The highway ride is supple, with some, but not too much, road feel. Aside from some engine noise under acceleration, it's very quiet inside.
Like a lot of Volkswagen models, there's a pretty substantial price spread from the cheapest to the most expensive model. Starting price is $18,995 (plus $770 in shipping), and climbs to just over $29,000 for a loaded turbocharged model. The test car was $25,965, including shipping, but it had a lot of features, including the automatic transmission ($1,100), a big sunroof, a Fender sound system with Sirius satellite radio, a navigation system and very pretty 18-inch alloy wheels. Don't expect to see many of those $18,995 Beetles on dealer lots for a while — the company is rolling out some of the higher-priced packages first.
VW has done an excellent job of maintaining the Beetle tradition, while updating and improving the car in every possible way. I liked the New Beetle but was never interested in owning one — this new Beetle, though, changes that.
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