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1999 VW New Beetle

Oooooeeeeee! hooted the woman at the New York State Thruway toll booth as I approached in an electric blue New Beetle.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

"Oooooeeeeee!" hooted the woman at the New York State Thruway toll booth as I approached in an electric blue New Beetle.

And she kept hooting, even as I tried to get her to take my toll card.

Instead of asking for my money, she asked about the Bug's fuel mileage. Then she told me all about her 1964 Beetle.

So much for swift rush hour service in Albany, N.Y. . .

And so it went, from VW headquarters in Whitby, through Kingston, Watertown, N.Y., Utica, Albany, Springfield, Mass., and even Boston's haughty Back Bay.

Who'd have thought that a $22,000 sub-compact built in low-rent Puebla, Mexico would catch the attention of every motorist, trucker, pedestrian and gas pump attendant?

Spending five days and 2121 km in VW's newest offering was an exercise in "profiling" that wouldn't even be possible in the world's most exotic sports cars.

At least for the moment, this car is definitely not for the timid, or anyone needing a quick, anonymous getaway from a crime scene.

But this long-distance test was more than an exercise in self-glamourization. It was also the best way to see if the New Beetle's charms extend beneath the shapely flanks and winsome face.

Since one date doesn't a great relationship make, I needed to get some tarmac under my map pocket for the real scoop on this beastie's long-term appeal.

First, though, here are answers to the Top Five questions I was asked whenever my speed dropped below 10 km/h:

1. The engine's in the front. It's a standardissue 2.0 L water-cooled VW four, cranking out 115 hp and driving the front wheels. In the rear is a hatchback with split-folding rear seatbacks.

2. I averaged 8 L/100 km (that's 35 mpg), with a best thankful running 6.6 L/100 km (43 mpg) on New England's picturesque, rolling rural roads.

3. Including freight and air tax, my well-equipped tester totalled $22,365 (see end of story for details).

4. The car rides, handles and accelerates as well as — or better than — any other small car. Passing on hilly rural roads was never a problem. You can thank the next-gen Golf platform for the able chassis.

5. The car really does come with its own little vase and plastic daisy.

Forced by conflicting work demands to travel alone, I took the "scenic route" from Toronto to Boston, avoiding the Thruway and, on the return, venturing north through postcard-perfect Bennington, Vt., home of Hemming's Motor News (the bible for old car buffs) and, I swear, the world's largest collection of two-centuries-old white clapboard housing.

Taking two-lane roads is slower than using the Interstate road system, but one does get a clean flavour of the land and its people. And, if one has a nice-driving car, like the New Beetle, the drive itself becomes as fulfilling as reaching the destination.

I'll skip further rhapsodizing and get straight to my picks and pans. Like any other, this car isn't perfect, but, wow, it sure is fun.



THUMBS UP

Kudos to VW designers for the hood release. Pull the under-dash lever and a red lizard's tongue pokes out from the front of the hood. Simply pull and lift. No more greasy, messy fingers from groping under the hood.

The care taken in choosing interior materials extends to sensual plastic on the door grab handles.

The fuel door has a handy release and is conveniently located atop the passenger-side rear fender.

Both the driver and front passenger get the Passat's cool barbershop-style seat height adjustors. The steering wheel adjusts for reach as well as tilt.

The violet back-lighting on the retro-style speedometer is gorgeous. It's complemented by red-lit controls and switches. Only the stalks for wiper and cruise controls stay in the dark.

The interior has two 12 V outlets.



THUMBS DOWN

Left in the sun, the deep, black dash top generates more heat than an hour of Baywatch.

The shoulder belt anchors (at all four positions) don't adjust for height.

There are no map lights. To get laptop illumination, the driver or front passenger must pull down their sun visor.

The sun visors are too small to reach the top of the side windows.

The one-touch up/down power windows get irritating very quickly if you just want to open a window slightly.

I made a dreadful mess of the creamy-beige cloth upholstery. The driver's seat cushion looked like an entire kindergarten class had spent its playtime on it. Ice cream lovers, look for a shade of upholstery to match your favourite flavour.

The three front cup holders sit under the centre portion of the dash, so there was not enough height for my favourite bottle of Fruitopia.

There is no slot for pocket change, so I used a cup holder.



QUALITY CONCERNS

Although VW officials have gone to great lengths in extolling the Mexican factory's improved quality, only time will tell if the New Beetle's reliability will make owners smile.

Except for a minor rattle on bumpy roads, the car was well assembled. The exterior body panels were flawlessly aligned and finished, and even the large, complex plastic pieces that make up the dash had been snapped together with care.

Although steering response was sharp and predictable, there was a split-second delay from the front wheels whenever I wanted to change direction quickly. I don't know whether to blame it on overly compliant bushings in the front end or on the 205/55R-16 Goodyear Eagle RSA tires.

Some Beetles are equipped with Michelin Energy MXV4 rubber, which may feel different behind the wheel.



TO BUY OR NOT

So, is this car worth buying?

If you're looking for a funky two-seater and don't mind paying a premium, go for it.

But if I were you, I'd wait a year for the bloom to be off the plastic daisy and to see the quality reports from owners. If you wait a bit longer, you may be able to order the 1.8 L turbo-charged Audi four, which should find its way under the Beetle's hood before the next millennium.

Then, there's also the hope that other automakers will see fit to offer us more choice in fun car designs. After all, the New Beetle proves that affordable and boring needn't always be synonymous.



PRICING INFORMATION

VW New Beetle: $19,940

Anti-lock brakes: $410

Convenience pkg.: $640

(cruise control, power windows)

Sport pkg.: $560

(alloy wheels, 205/55 tires, fog lamps)

All-weather pkg.: $205

(heated front seats)

Delivery charge: $510

Air tax: $100

Price as tested: $22,365



This report was prepared with a New Beetle supplied by

Volkswagen Canada.

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