Giving a sales star a boost.

by Sue Mead

SEDONA, Ariz. -- Volkswagen has been thumping the podium with its revival of the Beetle for a full year now in the United States, but Beetlemania shows no signs of letting up.

Give plenty of credit to this cute but competent machine for the marque's triumphant rebound in the North American market: 75,000 have been delivered so far, and countless people have been drawn to showrooms by what VW calls the "magnet for the brand."

Now, to ensure continued sales success and to answer the calls of enthusiasts, the Wolfsburg automaker has stuffed a more potent engine under the Bug's short nose, inspiring the unofficial "Super Beetle" moniker. The Car Connection drove this newly released version recently through the majestic high country of Sedona, Arizona, and we were pleasantly surprised by its potent powerplant.

The Super Beetle's iron fist is the remarkable 1.8-liter light-turbo four-cylinder engine best known for powering the Audi A4. With five-valve-per-cylinder technology, it makes 150 horsepower at a zingy 5800 rpm yet delivers its 156 foot-pounds of torque as low as 2200 on the tach. Best, it achieves even greater fuel economy than the base 2.0-liter powerplant. A four-speed automatic is an option over the standard five-speed gearbox.

No Beetle wears model designations on the rear hatch, but the new 1.8T (as it is officially known) sports an active spoiler to set it apart from the base and diesel models. Mounted above the rear glass, it automatically rises at 93 mph (150 kph) to improve stability but can be activated on command via an under-dash switch.

Otherwise, the quickened Bug is virtually unchanged. True, the front spring rates have been altered slightly for the extra weight of the induction system, but VW notes that all Beetles, regardless of engine choice, receive the sport version of the Golf/Jetta suspension, the platform upon which the car is based. Struts in front and an independent torsion-beam axle in the rear with track-correcting bushings provide for stable and nimble handling, and steering response is excellent thanks to the standard 16-inch wheels and low-profile tires.

Introduced with the 1.8T is the up-market GLX trim level, which combines a power sunroof, heated leather seats, and alloy wheels in one option package. Even the base GL versions, which come with the 2.0-liter engine only, are well equipped, though, with A/C, AM/FM cassette, keyless entry with alarm, side airbags, a pollen/odor filter, and a full-size spare as standard equipment.

While all GLX models will come with a choice of the new motor or the 1.9 TDi diesel version, each of the three engine variants are available as options on the midrange GLS edition that includes cruise control, fog lamps, and power windows and mirrors. Front headroom and legroom are more than ample, but the back seat passenger space is cramped at best. Materials and assembly are top-notch inside and out.

New this year across the board are standard disc brakes with ABS, four-place "hoop" headrests, a revised overhead console with eyeglass storage and clock, better cabin lighting, and an improved joystick control for the outside mirrors.

With a year's worth of data to look at, Volkswagen is now reporting sales trends for the New Beetle. Demographics reveal that not only is the New Beetle a magnet for the brand as a whole, but it has also drawn an impressive number of female buyers -- only 56 percent of women owned a previous VW versus 71 percent for men. Younger drivers -- many of whom do not remember the heyday of the original "people's car" -- have also flocked to showrooms.

Most surprising, though, are the factors buyers reported as the most important toward their purchase decision. Uniqueness and style ranked fifth and third, respectively, but it was the feeling of safety, durability, and reliability that convinced most to sign the check, proving that the public sees the new Bug as a capable car rather than just a cute toy.

Volkswagen expects more than a quarter of buyers to pick the top-of-the-line 1.8T. The standard 2.0-liter should claim about two-thirds, while the diesel-engined Beetle will account for the remainder. Demand is again likely to outstrip supply, so if you have your heart set on a 1.8T, expect to pay more than the $19,000/$20,900 GLS/GLX suggested as retail prices.

© The Car Connection

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