First Drive: Volkswagen Beetle Is For All The People (Again)

Even men will like the new design, which is more reminiscent of the original car than the 1990s New Beetle

BERLIN -- Achtung fans of the original Volkswagen Beetle: If you passed on buying a "New Beetle" because you thought it too cartoonish or feminine, you can wipe the image of the car from your eyes and psyche.

The 2012 Beetle looks, drives and feels like a car Ferdinand Porsche, the original Beetle's designer and engineer, would approve.

AOL Autos got a chance to drive the 2012 Beetle, expected to reach U.S. showrooms in October, around Germany's capital city and on the Autobahn this week. The verdict: This car is fun looking, fun to drive and entirely worth consideration.

It is ironic and appropriate on many levels that VW chose Berlin to launch the car with the media. It was at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show that Adolph Hitler, using the idea of a "people's car" for Germany's working class, tried to draw on the desire of the masses for an affordable car to help win the hearts of German citizens. "It is with bitter feelings that we see millions of honest, hard-working and capable men whose opportunities in life are already limited, cut off from the use of a vehicle which would be a special source of as yet-unknown happiness to them, particularly on Sundays and holidays," Hitler said.

In other words, Hitler was calling out the blue-blood auto tycoons at Mercedes-Benz, Opel, BMW and AutoUnion who resisted meeting his desire for an inexpensive car for the masses. They preferred to sell high-profit fancy cars to the upper middle class and wealthy.

The Fuhrer had been stirring up the German auto industry for more than a year to build an ultra inexpensive car that would the country's answer to Ford's Model T, a car so efficiently designed and produced that the men who built it on an assembly line could afford to buy one. When the Beetle finally went into small production after the war, after having been adapted to military vehicles during the war, it went on to sell more than 21 million worldwide before VW stopped making the car in Mexico in 2003.

The 1999 New Beetle was designed at VW's California studios by two Americans. And the fact is that few German executives ever liked the car. In discussing the 2012 Beetle this week (VW dropped the "New"), VW executives have been stressing that the 2012 Beetle ("Kafer" in Germany) is a spiritual and mechanical descendant from the original rather than an update of the New Beetle. To make the point, the company allowed journalists to drive a 1958 restored Beetle around the streets of Berlin. A New Beetle was nowhere in sight, and not offered to drive for comparison.

The problem with the New Beetle was that it was seen as a "chick" car. Not only was the car so bulbous it resembled a silicone enhanced breast, but it even had a bud flower vase in the dashboard.

Naturally, men represented a significant minority of buyers.

View Gallery: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

Drive Me. Don't Squeeze Me.

That ought not to be a problem with the 2012 Beetle. The silhouette of the vehicle is indeed closer to the original Beetle, with a sporty, fast look that says "drive me," rather than "squeeze me."

Like the New Beetle, though, the 2012 Beetle is a front-drive, front engine, water-cooled car built on the same mechanical architecture as the 2011 Jetta sedan. The original Beetle was air-cooled, rear-drive and rear-engined.

Oh well. But this Beetle does not suffer for any of the relations to the new Jetta. It is longer, wider and lower than the New Beetle. It comes in three engine configurations: a 2.5 liter five-cylinder gas engine mated to a six-speed automatic, a 2.0 liter turbo-charged four-cylinder gas engine mated to the DSG six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, and a 2.0 TDI turbo-charged diesel engine that will be launched next year. A manual transmission with hill-holder clutch will be offered as well, though VW did not have one for us to test.

Unlike the Jetta, the interior of which has been rightly criticized for carrying too much cheap looking plastic, the interior of the Beetle is darn near perfect with premium looking and feeling surfaces, a carbon fiber-patterned dashboard fascia (it also comes in the same body color as the car's exterior). Audio, navigation and climate controls all worked intuitively. One small gripe was no "Auto" setting on the air conditioner.

Cupholders are in the center console and useful. There are two glove boxes: one standard under the dash that houses the owners manual, and one optional binnacle above it that drops open from the vertical dash surface in front of the passenger. This is an homage to the glove-box in the original Beetle, but it won't hold much but pencils and a cellphone, so I'm not sure paying the extra for it worth it. An optional panoramic sun-roof will also be available, though our test cars were not equipped with them. There is also keyless access, and a push-button start.

The Beetle comes with VW's standard RCD 310 sound system with eight speakers. An upgrade includes a CD changer, and SD card interface and nav system. And there is a premium Fender audio system that VW just rolled out with the new Passat.

Pricing is north of $20K

Prices: The base model starts at $18,995, and includes a manual transmission, 17-inch wheels, power windows and locks, eight speaker sound system. The 2.5 liter with automatic transmission, six-way adjustable seats, media MDI interface, leatherette seating costs $20,895. Add the sunroof with a package that includes a trip computer, touch-screen radio, 18-inch wheels, the premium Fender audi and navigation and you are up to $25,195. Expect to pay $2,000 or so more when the Cabrio version comes out next year, though you obviously don't get the sunroof. The price for the TDI diesel package hasn't been announced yet, but figure in the $25,000-$26,500 range. The 2.0 liter Beetle Turbo with all the bells and whistles stickers out at $29,095.

There are a lot of ways to option out the Beetle, but figure you are going to write a check for somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 depending on how much stuff you want and boxes you check when ordering one.

Okay, but how does it really drive and feel? There just isn't that much to complain about here. This Beetle should be significantly more appealing to Beetle lovers than the New Beetle. New Beetle had such odd proportions that I felt like I was driving the car from the backseat. It had a dashboard that looked deep enough from the driver to the bottom of the windshield to play skeeball.

Driving on the Autobahn, we effortlessly climbed to 115-120 miles per hour in the Turbo version. The car has a German solidity to it, with every door and binnacle closure feeling like they were engineered by old-school German carmakers with cookie-duster mustaches and grease under their nails. It cornered fine and the anti-lock disc brakes performed above average.

And it looks cool.

Putting the Turbo version through its paces, I immediately began asking when I could drive the TDI clean diesel, which will be even cooler with the added torque and better fuel economy. Add the sunroof and the Fender sound system, and I'm definitely interested. Add the cabrio and a manual transmission, and it might just be the perfect car under $30,000 if it can be had for that.

What will the Beetle legitimately compete against? The most obvious rivals are the MINI Cooper, Fiat 500 and Scion tC. But I was thinking that there were over 500,000 people a year in the U.S. buying Beetles in the early 1970s for a few years before sales nosedived. A lot of those buyers (me included, as I owned a 1964 Beetle in the early 1980s) could have opted for a four-door vehicle for more practicality. But we bought and loved the two-door Beetle. The desire for style and personality in our ride transcended the want of an easier place to carry groceries. Yeah baby!

Are we really that different today? And besides, unlike the original Beetle, the 2012 edition has a hatchback with two rear seats that fold down. Even without the seats folded, the storage space is plenty for a week of groceries or a couple of suitcases. With the rear seats folded, there is a ton of room back there.

It is not that impractical a car unless you are constantly using the backseat for people. That will be the rub for some buyers.

The fact that a buyer will be able to crest $30,000 for a loaded Beetle doesn't exactly make it a "people's car" for the working class. But a decent Beetle can be had for around $20,000 if you aren't greedy about options. At either end of the price ladder, men, as well as women, should have plenty of fun and smiles behind the wheel.

AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley is the author of "Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America," John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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