Volkswagen's choice of Berlin for the launch of its 2012 Beetle inevitably struck us Yanks as curious – and not just because of the horrible abundance of construction projects in the city that makes driving a relative concept at best. The last time a Beetle was unveiled to massive acclaim in Berlin was 1938 and, well, you can finish that story for us. What is most pertinent in that remark, however, is how the original Beetle transcended politics and worldwide upheaval to thrive on its own merits.
The original Volkswagen Beetle sold over 21.5 million cars worldwide, with almost a quarter of those sales coming from the United States. More recently, our roads have been clogged with the 1998-2011 "Type 1C" New Beetle. We have our lingering opinions on the merits of that outgoing car, but regardless, it sold 1.2 million units globally – a figure not to be sniffed at. That said, if we're being honest, it was never a particularly serious and significant car for its times, despite all of the initial hubbub. We always wanted much, much more from a model whose original had succeeded in marking an entire era of rebellion and liberation. To be honest, though, we in the U.S. have been hoping for much, much more from Volkswagen as a company since long before the New Beetle.
Well, we're finally getting some of what we've been asking for. Volkswagen North America has Wolfsburg's undivided attention at last, and this "A5" Beetle is targeted squarely at the U.S. market. How will it resonate with 21st-century American buyers? Can it rival the Mini Cooper? Supplant the love we're cultivating for the Fiat 500? Steal sales from larger volume and less image-heavy cars like the Ford Focus and Mazda3? So much is yet to be discovered.
What we can now definitely tell you is that this latest Beetle is finally a driver's car – or at least about 80 percent more so than the New Beetle ever was.
Even the carryover of the never-gonna-die 170-horsepower 2.5-liter MPI inline five-cylinder motor for the base model Beetle, starting at $18,995, will be somewhat acceptable given the use of the PQ35 chassis that's shared with the latest Golf and Jetta. We've come to respect this architecture for the honest sophistication of how it rides beneath us – even when saddled with the "light use" torsion beam rear axle on base cars. To be fair, the aforementioned sub-$19k marquee price only applies to the bare-knuckle Beetle equipped with a thoroughly underwhelming five-speed manual transmission – a piece of equipment that should never have carried over into this new car. Get the Tiptronic six-speed automatic 2.5-liter car with a base price of $20,895 and you'll be able to speak more proudly of driving enjoyment and resale value.
The trim level we tested in Berlin, however, was the far better 2.0 TFSI four-cylinder with 197 horsepower (at 5,100 rpm) and 207 pound-feet of torque when you need it (between 1,700 and 5,000 rpm). This ovalesque honey with its big rear spoiler starts bone-dry at $23,395 with its also far better six-speed manual, firmer suspension, 18-inch alloys and sport front seats. Get the six-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission and the price rises to $24,495. The ultimate in Beetle-tude will be the 2.0T with panoramic sunroof, Fender hi-fi and a really good sat-nav unit for $27,995 with the manual gearbox ($29,095 with DSG). Add $770 destination and VW can boast a lineup that sticks to the sub-$30,000 promise – before frolicking through the stand-alone options list, that is.
We've become so accustomed in the U.S. to base, spoiler-free VWs with their 2.5-liter anchors that we're sort of sure of how we'll like that less-expensive Beetle once we try it. The chassis ought to help a lot, though the powertrain needs to be put to pasture pretty soon. Best to shove those thoughts out of our head for the moment, however, and get on with the improved dynamics of the 2.0T Beetle Turbo Sport seen here. Our tester was equipped with standard Euro-trim 17-inch wheels (they're 18s in North America on the 2.0T) and it was missing the three auxiliary gauges – oil temperature, stopwatch and turbo pressure – that will come standard on North American 2.0Ts. Otherwise, our car was essentially identical to the just over 3,000-pound Beetle that U.S. consumers will be able to buy come the second half of August. Can you say "Back to School gift"?
In a first for Volkswagen, the Beetle's six-speed DSG gearbox is programmed differently depending on which side of the ocean it's shipped to. In the U.S., VW has chosen to prioritize the frequent stop-and-go traffic encountered by typical buyers of a car like the Beetle. Accordingly, the gearing short-shifts quite willingly when left in Drive, keeping the revs low in order to keep the driving smooth. This was, according to the Wolfsburg engineers we spoke with, due directly to customer feedback. It's nice to know they're listening, and, to be honest, those Berlin traffic snarls made us very happy to be driving our tranquilized Beetle in a similar fashion.
The payoff of putting the city's construction zones behind us came when we switched the gearbox into Sport. In this mode, the transmission holds gears almost excessively, but we can't really complain, as the peppy S mode lives up to its billing. Our favorite setting was with the gearlever over to the right in sequential mode, since we could then hold gears as long as we pleased. Our car didn't have the optional sport steering wheel with shift paddles, and by the end of the day, we wanted those flappers at our fingers.
When hammering on the 2.0T, the engine quite unexpectedly revealed a broader, more vocal soundtrack. VW's global product specialist for all things Beetle, Oliver Riess, was kind enough to clue us in as to why. According to Reiss, an extra resonator has been engineered into the intake plenum to produce more entertaining noises from the footwell area. It was also clear to us that getting to 60 mph in under 7.5 seconds won't be any trouble, so this isn't just all sound and no fury.
Speaking of added sound aids, only European 2.0T Beetles will receive five-layer acoustic front glass panels as standard equipment. This is a shame, since the difference we heard and felt with the use of this sound deadening measure is quite pronounced. North America will have to settle for a four-layer substitute and a slightly more economy-car timbre while motoring along. The next time you head to Europe, rent a Beetle or Golf and you'll hear what we mean.
There was actually a stretch of no-limit autobahn outside of Berlin, and while traveling at 130 mph-plus over several sparsely trafficked miles in the flatlands, this new Beetle was vastly more stable than the outgoing New Beetle ever was. That's not too surprising, as the new model sits half an inch lower, is 3.3 inches wider and stretches itself out 6.0 inches longer. The sport suspension – and perhaps the rear spoiler – helped keep things very stable and trustworthy, with little susceptibility to crosswinds. Noise from the Beetle's more upright windscreen and larger side-view mirrors was surprisingly low. Our sole quibble here is that the sport suspension mixed with the Continental ContiPremiumContact2 tires (sized 215/55 R17 94W front and rear) occasionally created a bit of Euro-style "tire-slap" with excessive initial rebound from the dampers and springs. Even so, it never really roughed us up.
We see the Beetle's new design as very astute. It's rather cute, yet it has more of the cojones VW has been looking for in order to gain a bit more street cred with male buyers. But after a whole day spent driving and photographing our car from all angles, we remain convinced that VW designers could have played around a lot more with the Beetle aesthetic. We dig its new profile and the decision to relocate the cabin rearward to create a slightly more mainstream package, but it's not like the creators really needed to respect the outgoing New Beetle super-oval "aquarium look" so much.
At one point – strike us dead for it – we found ourselves looking through the camera's viewfinder, only to get an impression in our mind that wouldn't go away. Looking up from the camera and staring at the Beetle's profile, we whispered, "PT Cruiser." What's more, the tail end is slightly raised à la Cruiser, and we think a level stance would suit it better. (See the VW Ragster droptop concept from 2005 for notes.)
On the inside, the flower vase is gone and there are no bottle openers to pull from the center console. Best of all, the humongous, cheap plastic minivan-like dash shelf – necessitated by the outgoing car's perfectly symmetrical fore-aft proportions – has been banished. That shelf is regular-sized now and softer touch. In fact, unlike the American-market Jetta, this Beetle's interior is pleasantly free of controversy and just plain solid whether you stick with the basic fabric upholstery or opt for the synthetic leather. The steering wheel is a nice piece, too, with the two spokes low in the hoop, just as on the original. (We also drove around a 1958 Beetle Export edition with its four-speed wiggly stick sprouting from the floor, so we couldn't help but notice such similarities.)
The RNS 315 navigation system that gets thrown in once you pay the piper at least $27,995 is as good and clear as we can remember in any other VW Group small car. Better still, the two rear-seat passengers can actually sit normally – not hunched forward as in the old model. Cargo room has skyrocketed in the rear to 15.4 cubic feet with the seats up, and there's a full 29.9 cubes with them stowed. It's too bad that the 60/40 split seatbacks don't fold quite flush with the floor, but we appreciated the copious space all the same.
So, we finally have a mainstream Beetle that fits better with these modern times. That's not unlike how things began in Germany post-World War II, back when everyone was broke and needed cheap, hard-wearing transportation with a pinch of cuteness tossed in. Of course, the VW reps on hand at the launch couldn't help name-dropping Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin when presenting this new Beetle. That's amusing, since we figure most modern Germans would probably be scared to death if they ever met Jimi or Janis (let alone attended one of their fragrant concerts pre-overdose). A little forced co-opting of psychedlic rock culture is to be expected these days, however, in order to tap back in to the cult of Beetle in hopes of re-establishing the model's cool factor.
Overall, this Beetle is nobly getting back on the right track, though we think VW could have pushed the envelope further without risking a thing. There's a great variety of stuff on the horizon, too, thankfully. We can already visualize the convertible and the inevitable Super Beetle variants, and we suspect that the Beetle's new proportions will look incredibly good in droptop form. Another positive bit coming our way in 2012 is the clean diesel 2.0 TDI Beetle with 138 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, also reaching up to 29 miles per gallon city and 40 mpg highway. In a very progressive gesture, VW of America has already confirmed it will offer this sweet diesel setup in both hardtop and convertible bodystyles. We can't remember if anyone's ever offered an oil-burning convertible in the States, and this diesel drophead might just be the most righteous Beetle of all.