VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE REVIEW
What’s hot: That 118TSI engine is a delight; good ride.
What’s not: Does ‘the retro thing’ still work? Interior a bit lacking.
X-Factor: Its quirky coupe lines will win hearts, not because it’s retro, but because it looks cool. End of story.
Vehicle style: Small two-door hatchback coupe
Price: $29,990 (six-speed manual); $32,490 (seven-speed DSG)
Fuel economy listed: 6.4 l/100km (DSG) | tested: 7.9 l/100km (highway run)
Those of us who grew up with the original Volksey, the Type 1 ‘Beetle’, we’ve got fond memories of that little car with the chaff-cutter engine and the diabolical swing-axle rear suspension.
Built here for around ten years, most with an air-cooled 1200cc engine in the bum, ageing Volkseys were everywhere – the student’s car of choice.
The small fact that a lot spent a considerable part of their time upended with their puny wheels spinning in the air, because they would flip over at the drop of a hat, didn’t bother us at all.
They were slow as, so we drove them everywhere ‘flat to the board’. Because you could, and because they were fun.
And, if you had one, you could occasionally find someone of the opposing gender eager to go to the drive-in with you because it was – at least – a car, if not an especially impressive one.
(Later, depending upon how sporting your partner was, you could spend half the night trying to work out how to extract your foot from the glovebox that you’d thrust in there in a moment of contorted passion.)
So, yes, it was inevitable that when that first retro-Beetle arrived in the late nineties, it came with great expectations. But it was all wrong.
The engine was in the front; the windscreen that was centimetres from the fingertips in the original was somewhere in the next county in the new car – and from behind the wheel it felt like you were driving it from the back-seat.
And it was too ‘girly’.
Fast forward a decade-and-a-half and Volkswagen has decided to have another shot at it.
And this one is better. Much. As a car, that is. Because aside from four wheels and a vaguely reminiscent ‘double curve’ shape, it is as much like the air-cooled rear-engined original as an emu or a tuning fork.
Retro – trying to copy and recreate something that’s gone – probably never really works. It is, at best, a pastiche, nothing more.
But don’t let that put you off the new Beetle. It’s actually quite a nice car; a good size, drives in a Golf-ish kind-of way, has a nice feel at the wheel and quite a surprising amount of space inside.
Better, sliding in under $30k for the manual version ($29,990) it’s really well priced. The DSG version is dearer, $32,490, but still comparatively inexpensive.
Depending upon the exterior colour of the car, the interior can be a bit scary. That’s because the external colour is repeated inside on a swathe of painted plastic topping the doors and across the dash.
It looks good in ‘denim blue’ (I thought), kind-of ok in red, but garish as hell in yellow. There’s also a ‘Fender’ model with a black exterior and a sunburst interior treatment – we’ll need to hold judgment on that one till we see it.
But, over all, it’s well laid-out and quite neatly styled. The small upper-glovebox ahead of the passenger (and borrowed from the original’s glovebox style) is a useful touch, and looks really good.
Seats are also good, trimmed in a tight fabric in standard form but can be upgraded to leather. In fabric or leather they’re well-shaped enough, have ample adjustment and are comfortable.
The steering wheel adjusts for tilt and reach and is small-ish and covered in leather, but its rim is too thin for my liking.
The plastics throughout are ok. That said, nothing feels particularly substantial – especially the painted dashboard panel which looks thin and (I’d reckon) easily damaged – but things fit together pretty well.
Mostly. The trim around the instrument binnacle has lots of give under the fingers, and has a curious join on each curved side.
All round, the Beetle interior seems ‘light’ and doesn’t have the impression of robust integrity that you get in a Golf. (The car itself though feels very strong and quite rigid.)
On the plus side is the driving position. Where the previous model was just wrong, the new Beetle gives the feeling of sitting low like in a sports coupe.
The upright screen and dash work well stylistically, and the relationship between seat, wheel and pedals is really good.
There’s a reasonable feature-list for your money. The audio system is good, our tester had sat-nav fitted (an optional inclusion) which was easily programmed, there’s a standard CD/MP3 player (with a six-stacker unit), media interface and USB input.
Add Bluetooth connectivity (with audio streaming), dual-zone air-con, park distance sensors, rain-sensing wipers, remote locking, two reading lamps (a nice touch), among other features .
ON THE ROAD
Volkswagen’s 118TSI twin-charged 1.4 litre petrol engine is a cracker. It spins readily, feels much stronger than its modest capacity would suggest, and makes a raspy sporty note when hustled along.
And it seems to work particularly well in this car. The new Beetle is marginally lighter than the Golf, and it seems a little more lively for it (though we’d have to put them side by side to confirm).
Its flexibility comes from the wide torque band (240Nm @ 1500-4500rpm) and peak power that sits above it (118kW @ 5800rpm).
Mated to the seven-speed DSG – we haven’t yet driven the manual – the way those torque and power figures work means that there is an eager response from the engine when you want to get a wriggle on.
You’ll have no trouble shooing it around a mountain road or overtaking. It gets up and bolts eagerly and kicks down just as readily when cornering (or can be flicked through the box via the plastic paddles at the fingertips).
Consumption suffers if you give the new Beetle a work-out. We averaged 10.7 l/100km on a long belt through the hills. The return trip, taking it steady, saw this figure drop to 7.9 l/100km.
On road though, it is particularly well-balanced and comfortable.
I’m no fan of brittle European-style suspensions – they just don’t work on Aussie roads – but the new Beetle has the right amount of compliance to feel sharp at wheel, while soaking up corrugations and broken tarmac.
Big bumps will unsettle it, but it’s not harsh in the way some Korean models (for instance) can be caught out by rough tarmac.
It’s conventional fare down below; struts up front and torsion-beam rear with trailing arms and coils, but the long wheelbase (relatively) and good damping produce a flat and well-controlled ride.
Our test car came with the optional ‘cooker-cutter’ style 18-inch alloys. Standard is 17-inch, but the bigger wheels look great.
Luggage space isn’t huge, 310 litres, but expands to 905 litres with the rear seat folded. Speaking of the rear, there was no trouble fitting this correspondent and his stumpy legs into the back seat. And entry is pretty good for a two-door.
With a 5-Star ANCAP rating there is all the usual safety stuff like ESC, ABS, hill-start assist, daytime driving lights, electronic diff-lock and front and side airbags.
FIRST DRIVE VERDICT
How different would this Beetle be – today – if VW had never stopped making it? I can’t help but wonder.
Perhaps the little Volksey would have evolved into something like an inexpensive ‘Boxster-for-the-masses’ if it had not lain dead for so many decades.
While the front-engine thing and the Golf-like way it drives works in itself, and it is in fact quite a nice car, there is something just a little hollow about the exercise, this homage to a long-gone icon. (Maybe it’s just me...)
But walk around the new Beetle, and you’ve got an appealingly-styled modern coupe. Its funkified lines will have it standing out from the crowd, it has a fun sporty feel to the way it drives and the accommodation is good.
It’s also very well-priced: more car for your money in fact than you’ll find in the tight MINI.
So, more coupe than hatch, the new Beetle is well worth a look if you’re in the market for a sprightly two-door with a bit of individuality.
- 2013 Volkswagen Beetle - 1.4 TSI Manual - $29,990
- 2013 Volkswagen Beetle - 1.4 TSI DSG - $32,490
- 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Fender - 1.4 TSI DSG - $34,490
Note: prices exclude on-road costs.