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Tony O'Kane | Feb 12, 2009 | 1 Comment

It’s been around for the best part of a decade now, but is the New Beetle a viable city car, or is it simply a case of form over function?

Before the new Mini, before the modern-day Fiat 500 and indeed before the retro-tastic Ford Mustang, there was one car that made ‘old’ the new ‘new’.

Volkswagen’s New Beetle burst onto the scene back in 1998 to much fanfare, with its distinctive bubble-on-bubble silhouette capitalising on the unique and oh-so-cute shape of its sexagenarian predecessor, the Volkswagen Type 1.

Unlike the original Beetle though, Volkswagen’s new ‘people’s car’ was motivated by a water-cooled inline four that drove the front wheels, instead of a rear-mounted air-cooled flat four that turned the rears.

“Heresy!” screamed Beetle purists, but the truth of the matter was that the New Beetle’s Golf IV-based underpinnings were cheaper to produce, allowed a greater range of engines and used a suspension system that was dynamically superior to the old Beetle’s archaic swing-axle geometry.

Fast forward ten years and the New Beetle is still with us, and largely unchanged to boot. For a vehicle that’s so long in the tooth, the New Beetle’s design still looks fresh and it’s still proving popular with style-conscious small car buyers.

But what of the rest of the package? Is it time the New Beetle was put out to pasture? Can it still keep up with the current crop of zippy, fashionable city cars?

Volkswagen threw us the keys to a mint 10th Anniversary Edition Beetle and set us loose to find out.

First Impressions

The moment you step into the New Beetle’s high-roofed cabin there’s one thing that immediately strikes you – that enormous dashboard. Grafting the Beetle’s iconic shape onto a front-wheel-drive chassis necessitated some severe compromises in interior packaging, and the inordinate amount of air between the driver and the windscreen is just one of those unfortunate byproducts.

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Another is the slightly cramped rear quarters, which may not accommodate the ‘tall of back’ or the ‘long of leg’. That being said, we took a full load of four average-sized people on a lengthy highway stint, and all reported a surprising level of comfort from the rear pews – even if headroom was limited by the sloping rear hatch.

The black-and-white leatherette seat trim is a little naff (and more than a little squeaky), but there’s a number of charming throwbacks to the New Beetle’s forebear dotted around the cabin. The grab straps on the B-pillar are one, while the body-coloured inner window sills are another.

The grab handle just above the glovebox is also a tip of the hat to the original Beetle’s interior; however it seemed to be at just the right height for me to smash my kneecap into it when entering the left seat. Mildly annoying, that.

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Switchgear will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a Mk IV Golf, and while they may look dated that also means said switches will probably outlast mankind itself. The stereo is a basic single disc MP3-compatible CD/tuner with six speakers and, compared to other VW products, sound quality is not the Beetle’s strong suit.

However the trim feels solid and durable, the instruments are clear and easy to read, and aside from a rather thick A-pillar, outward visibility is good.


Styling

While the interior may be a bit of a mixed bag, the New Beetle Anniversary Edition is a real winner on the outside. The passage of time has certainly failed to take the edge off the New Beetle’s retro-inspired styling. Yeah, it’s cutesy as hell and as a result it’s not the most… umm… masculine of vehicles. But, credit where it's due, the clean rounded lines and totally unique shape really draw in the eye.

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The Anniversary Edition goes one better and clothes the Beetle with a crisp, contrasty two-tone paintjob. Campanella White body panels, a blacked-out roof and side mirrors as well as a set of subtle 10th anniversary side stripes give the Anniversary Edition a thoroughly modern look, while a quartet of 17x7-inch alloy rims bling it up a little.

…Yeah, it’s cutesy as hell and as a result it’s not the most masculine of vehicles, but the clean, rounded lines and totally unique shape really draw in the eye…

The Anniversary Edition also wears the slightly crisper styling that was brought in for the 2006 model year, meaning fender arches have a sharp radial crease and the front and rear bumpers are slightly bigger.

They’re not huge changes mind you, but then again not much was wrong with the original styling either.

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The Drive

I’ll be honest with you – I wasn’t exactly expecting much from the Beetle’s on-road performance. Blame it on my unfounded prejudice against fashion cars (MINI Cooper S notwithstanding), but the idea of a tall, FWD, tiny-engined bubble car failed to get the testosterone a-pumpin’.

And so with that in mind testing was done at a more sedate pace. No full-throttle on-ramp assaults, no hair-raising mountain drifting, just calm urban driving. Pootling around town was easy with the six-speed automatic, and with just 75kW and 148Nm trickling out of the Beetle’s 1.6-litre four-pot the front wheels stayed resolutely unlit.

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The auto tranny exhibited some peculiar behaviour though, for under normal throttle during light acceleration it always revved the engine far too high (usually between 4000-5000rpm) before deciding to grab another ratio.

The result was noisy progress and an unnecessarily high thirst for fuel, and I often found myself selecting gears manually via the tiptronic gate. It may be small, but the little 1.6 still had ample torque to pull the Beetle cleanly from low RPM; which doesn’t really explain the gearbox’s perplexing shift mapping.

It was at this point I started wishing I had the five-speed manual instead.

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Driving the Beetle was also an unusually disorienting affair, for the car’s sprawling dash and form-over-function proportions conspire to put the driver’s head in the rear half of the cabin. There’s a huge amount of room between your face and the windshield and it feels like you’re piloting it from the back seat. A strange sensation indeed.

Point the Beetle at a corner, however, and it couldn’t feel any better. The Anniversary Edition comes fitted with a sports suspension kit, and it endows the curvy hatchback with a surprising level of agility. There’s very little bodyroll in corners, bumps don’t unsettle the chassis and those grippy 225/45R17 Continental ContiSportContact tyres offer more grip than you’d care to use.

Still, despite inheriting much of the Golf’s dynamic prowess, the Beetle was let down immensely by that tiptronic auto. Our advice? Option the five-speed manual cog-swapper instead. You’ll save fuel and the grin on your face will be wider.

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More power would’ve been nice too, and it’s almost painful to learn that the Beetle receives much larger powerplants in some overseas markets (110kW 2.5 litre inline five, anyone?). Call it a hunch though, but we’re willing to bet that power isn’t exactly high on the checklist of your average Beetle buyer. Bully for us, then.


The Daily Grind

One major downside of having such a curvy bod is a frightening lack of spatial awareness. It’s nigh on impossible to tell where the Beetle starts and ends from the driver’s seat, and tight parallel parking can be quite literally a hit-and-miss affair. Still, with the front and rear fenders being made of easily-repaired plastic, minor parking-lot bumps and scrapes will at least be easy to mend.

A more pressing issue, however, is the Beetle’s utility. If the only things you need to cart around in your daily travels are you, your handbag and quite possibly a single passenger, the New Beetle will likely serve you well. Try and squeeze in more people or luggage though, and things start to get messy.

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While the front seats articulate forward on a clever hinge and the door openings are massive, it’s still a pain having to crawl into the back seats – and having all that dead space in front of the passengers just seems cruel.

The boot is also extremely small for a hatchback, and would probably struggle to contain the average fashionista’s weekend luggage. Again, the Beetle’s hump-backed silhouette betrays it, and the result is a boot that can only hold a paltry 209 litres with the seats up. With the rear seatback folded down luggage space improves, but at a grand total of 527 litres it’s not exactly what you’d call capacious.

The Verdict

Okay, so it’s eye-catchingly handsome, handles well and is easy to drive; but has flawed interior packaging, is based on a somewhat outdated chassis and can be difficult to park. A mixed bag then? Well, yes and no.

I hate to generalize, but it’s probably safe to say that most New Beetle buyers are drawn to it for one thing and one thing only: that hip, funky and fashionable shape. People don’t buy a Beetle to go fast, and they certainly don’t buy one to lug around friends, family and the dog – it’s purely an aesthetic thing.

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Think of it as an accessory rather than a car, then. It’s a guess, but I’d reckon women don’t buy a Gucci handbag because it’s practical, and they certainly don’t buy six-inch heels because they’re comfortable. Likewise with the Beetle, buyers will be more drawn to it if it matches the image that they want to craft for themselves, and they’ll accept its compromises if it makes them look good or feel better.

Is it a bad car? No. Are there better cars out there? Yes. Will it suit you? That’s entirely a matter of taste, and whether you want to be the anonymous commuter in a Golf, or the one that stands out from the crowd in a snazzy two-tone Volkswagen Beetle.

Tony’s Big Statement

“If looking good is paramount and you’ve no need for a big boot or decent rear seats, then the Volkswagen New Beetle Anniversary Edition is the car you’ve been searching for.”

Tony Likes

  • Cute styling gets attention of fairer sex
  • handling is fantastic for a car with a torsion beam rear suspension
  • chassis feels solid
  • two-tone paintjob looks great
  • huge headroom for front passengers

Tony Dislikes

  • Cabin proportions make no sense whatsoever
  • luggage space and rear seat room limited by body shape
  • tiptronic auto not worth the $2300 premium
  • pleather seats squeak
  • A-pillar blindspot is huge

Gallery

Specifications

Engine type: Inline Four 4-stroke EFI petrol
Capacity: 1595cm²
Bore x Stroke: 81x77.4mm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Max Power: 75kW @ 5600rpm
Max Torque: 148Nm @ 3800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with tiptronic
Economy: 8.1l/100km
Fuel Tank Capacity: 55 litres
Suspension: Front: MacPherson Strut, sport suspension settings

Rear: Torsion beam, trailing links, sport suspension settings

Wheels: 17x7 inch (cast alloy)
Tyres: 225 / 45R17
Brakes Front: Ventilated discs

Rear: Solid discs

Unladen Kerb Weight: 1247kg
Luggage Compartment Volume: 209l seats up, 527l seats down
Price as tested: $30,290
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