I’m guessing Volkswagen will be interested in hearing about when I filled up my 2012 Beetle tester. There, I met a 30-something man who looked my car over and said, ‘Is that the newest one’ That’s a good-looking car. I really like it.’
On the other hand, his female companion glanced over, and then looked away. And that would warm the cockles of VW’s corporate heart, because the whole idea behind this newest version of the venerable Bug is that it’s no longer considered a ‘chick car.’
(Yes, I actually heard a U.S. public relations rep call it that at a news conference a couple of years ago. I’m guessing he isn’t sent out to face the press anymore.)
I’ve never quite figured out why an automaker wouldn’t want to build a car that makes such a favourable impression with half the population, but that’s why the Beetle ‘ which is now called just that, to differentiate it from the outgoing New Beetle, so named because it wasn’t the original, old, air-cooled Beetle ‘ now looks less like a bubble, and more like an Audi TT’s second cousin. And naturally, the bud vase on the dash is gone.
The result is a car that’s a satisfying driver, one that feels like a mash-up of the best of a Passat and Jetta. But the redesign took all the lighthearted fun out of it. It may be a Beetle, but it’s no longer a ‘Bug.’ It has lots of body, but very little soul.
Two engines are available. My tester carried the base 2.5 L inline five-cylinder, at 170 horsepower, which starts with a five-speed manual transmission and had been optioned to a six-speed automatic on mine.
The next step up is a turbocharged 2.0 L four-cylinder, producing 200 horsepower. A diesel version will arrive with the 2013 edition. Models with the 2.5 L run from $21,795 to $26,575. The turbo comes strictly in Sportline trim, which at $29,025 is just $350 less than the equally engined and more testosterone-themed Golf GTI.
The 2.5 L is a fairly sedate performer when it’s in the automatic’s ‘Drive’ mode; it’s livelier and more fun when you slip the gearshift lever into ‘Sport’ mode, although that also chews up more gasoline. Handling isn’t as athletic as on the GTI, but the steering is nicely weighted, and the response is still sharp and quick. If your needs are more commuter car than sports machine, the five-cylinder should be fine, especially since it doesn’t require premium fuel.
Despite its ‘chopped roof’ appearance, it’s roomy inside, and I got no complaints from two full-size adult passengers who ended up in the rear seats. The front seats slide forward for easier access, but if you’re putting small children in the back, it can be a long reach to buckle their seatbelts.
Those rear seats fold forward, although not flat, to increase the Beetle’s cargo capacity, which clocks it at an impressive 436 litres even before the folding. That said, it would be an easier task if the release mechanisms were on the sides of the rear seats, rather than in the middle of the row.
The dash is delightfully retro-styled ‘ on my car, painted bright red to match the exterior colour, and carried through into the steering wheel and door panels. An equally retro cubby above the glove box opens when you push and then pull the handle. The interior materials feel high-quality and it’s all put together very well.
While so many cars are overly complicated, the Beetle’s controls are refreshingly simple, including a three-dial climate control system. My optional navigation system was also extremely easy to use, and the package included a premium audio system from Fender ‘ yes, the guitar and amplifier people. Turn a dial, and the lighted rings around the door speakers can be switched between three colours.
There are a couple of issues. The inside door handles are up front near the hinge, and so there needs to be a second handhold at the back, to more easily control the long door in parking lots or on windy days. Secondly, if you want Bluetooth connectivity, it’s bundled with media interface, for an additional $675.
Between its confident handling, its comfortable seats and its cool interior, this latest Beetle is a fine ride.
But a retro niche vehicle needs to stand out ‘ that is, after all, why you buy a new car that’s modelled on an old one. And this new Beetle, while handsome enough, lacks that charm that made the old one so neat.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle
PRICE: $21,975 ‘ $26,575, as-tested $27,590
ENGINE: 2.5 L five-cylinder
FUEL: City 9.5, hwy 7.1, as-tested 7.7
COMPETITION: Fiat 500, Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Veloster, Kia Forte Coupe, Mini Cooper, Volkswagen GTI
WHAT’S BEST: Funky dash, roomy interior
WHAT’S WORST: It’s lost its Bug-style charm
WHAT’S INTERESTING: The original ‘old-style’ Beetle was built in Mexico right up until 2003