Road Test: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

It is unquestionably new, yet still unmistakably a Beetle. But, while the original came from humble pre-Second World War beginnings, going on to achieve iconic status and sell more than 21 million units worldwide over 75 years, there is nothing overtly proletariat about the newest take on the “people’s car.” Nor is this longer, lower and wider version as gushingly cute as the rounded New Beetle, which debuted in 1998 and ushered in a fresh wave of Beetlemania.

No, this third-generation “21st Century” Beetle, as Volkswagen has tagged it, is an edgier twist to a car that always seemed to have a sunny disposition — sportier and slightly more masculine thanks to the flatter front, back and roof, although the jury is still out on whether it can shed its “chick car” label. It’s inherently a conventional compact coupe based on the Jetta with an engine up front powering the front wheels, yet it bears a shape that still stands out among a sea of ordinary. It’s impossible to ignore such an individualist. But does that make it good?

For the most part, the answer is yes, just not outstanding — starting with the powertrain. While a turbocharged four-cylinder is also available for the 2012 Beetle (the four-cylinder TDI turbodiesel will be offered for the 2013 model year), the base engine remains the 2.5-litre five-cylinder, the same as in the Golf and Jetta. It’s essentially a carryover from the New Beetle, but fortified with 20 more horsepower for a total of 170. The motor is coupled with either a five-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed Tiptronic manumatic with a centre console-located shifter. Somewhat annoying is the gruff note to the 2.5L under power, although it smoothes out when it’s cruising. Whether that’s a function of its odd number of cylinders or something else, it’s a bit of a letdown.

So is the engine’s performance. Considering the four-seater Beetle tips the scales at a fairly trim 1,353 kilograms, decent if not scintillating performance might be expected. Yet it takes 10.5 seconds to accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour, which is OK for a small car but nothing extraordinary. At 7.3 seconds, the same goes for the 80-to-120-km/h passing manoeuvre (both times recorded during instrumented testing at AJAC’s annual TestFest).

Fuel economy proved more surprising. The Beetle’s government fuel rating of 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres for city driving and 7.1 on the highway (for the automatic) is not bad in the grand scheme of things, yet noticeably thirstier than other similarly priced small cars (Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, et al). Still, I averaged 8.3 L/100 km in a mix of suburban around-town puttering and highway use, so I’m not complaining.

While the Turbo model is the sporting version, the non-turbo Beetle is no wimp in the handling department. The suspension — conventional MacPherson struts up front and a transverse link rear axle with stabilizer bars at both ends — is firm (exacerbated by the stiffer winter tires) but not overly harsh for the most part, though sharper bumps, potholes and the like do make themselves keenly felt. There is some body roll in tighter turns, but the Beetle sticks to its intended line. Traction control and electronic stability control are standard.

The hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a good weight to it and properly communicates road conditions to the driver. Brakes are vented discs up front and solid discs at the back and come with standard ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Under testing, the Beetle performed a panic stop from 100 km/h in 44 metres, about average for cars in its class.

The Beetle’s interior proved to be a pleasant surprise. Instead of the stuffy, dark interiors common to German cars of most stripes (Audi excluded), the VW was as bright as an amusement park, thanks in no small part to the cheerful red interior trim panels that matched the topline Premium+ tester’s Tornado Red exterior paint job. It goes well with the attractive and somewhat sporty cabin layout — no flower vase, however. The instruments and controls are clearly marked and logically placed. And, being tall and rather long of leg, I found the flat-bottom steering wheel provided an extra measure of thigh room. There’s a full list of modern conveniences offered with the Premium+, including a navigation system and heated seats, though the seats are not powered. One quibble is VW’s continued use of the jetfighter red lighting for the console controls. At night, it’s far too muted to properly illuminate the various dials and buttons.

Even though the new model’s roofline is not as dome-like as its predecessor’s, there is plenty of headroom front and back for six-footers, although rear-seat legroom is not nearly as generous. Cargo volume has improved, however, to an impressive 15.4 cubic feet, nearly doubling that number when the rear seat is folded down.

I like the new Beetle much more than I did its predecessor, but I can’t say I’m blown away by it. Like the Mini Cooper, which is far more entertaining to drive, and the Fiat 500, which is cuter, the Veedub trades a measure of basic small-car utility for a retro theme designed for romantics and extroverts who don’t want the same old same old. If that’s your shtick, who am I to disagree? Since I don’t have any misty-eyed memories of Beetles past, however, I’d be just as happy driving the more conventional and less expensive Golf.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle. Photograph by: Brian Harper, National Post