As much fun to drive as it is to look at.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $15,900
As Tested $20,685

Volkswagen's New Beetle isn't so new as it was last year, but it still attracts attention and draws comments. It is cute. It's also fun to drive. A taut suspension provides the driver with excellent control on mountain roads and makes it supremely stable at high speeds. Government (NHTSA) crash testing indicates the Beetle is quite safe - something that couldn't be said of the old Beetle familiar to us all.

Adding to the Beetlemania is a new 1.8T model that includes a much more powerful engine. The 150-horsepower turbocharged engine allows der Beetle to squirt out of corners like a Golf GTI; in other words, der Beetle is quick.

Model Lineup

Five models are available: GL ($15,900); GLS 2.0L ($16,850); GLS TDI (17,900); GLS 1.8T ($19,000); GLX ($21,075).

GL and GLS are powered by Volkswagen's 115-horsepower 2.0-liter engine. GLS TDI uses a 90-horsepower 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel engine. The 1.8T comes with a 150-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter engine. The 1.8T is available in two trim lines: the GLS 1.8T and the fully loaded GLX.

Walkaround

When it arrived in 1998, the New Beetle rekindled the magic of its legendary namesake and became a ray of sunshine in an all-too-serious car market. The Volkswagen Beetle is among the top 10 best-selling nameplates of all time, ranking right up there with the Ford Model T in terms of number sold. The design of Volkswagen's New Beetle captures the essence of the original Bug.

But Volkswagen calls this car the "New" Beetle to emphasize that it actually has little in common with the old one. The New Beetle mounts a water-cooled engine up front that powers the front wheels. The original Beetle used an air-cooled engine mounted in back that powered the rear wheels. The New Beetle is thoroughly modern. It is built on the same basic platform as the Volkswagen Golf. It's also far safer than the old Bug. Well-engineered crumple zones and other features enhance crash protection. Dual front and side airbags are standard. Antilock brakes are an option. A rigid chassis results in a smooth, controlled ride with little noise, vibration or harshness.

Though it harks to the original design, the shape of the New Beetle is thoroughly modern. Chrome bumpers have been replaced with integrated, color-keyed bumpers. Quality is also far batter than the old Bug. Gaps between doors, fenders and other body panels are some of the tightest we've seen.

The original Beetle was an economy car and looked it. The New Beetle is still a good value, but visually it tells a different story. It looks up-market and up-tempo. It comes in a sophisticated palette of colors. Cyber Green, for example, is a pearlescent metallic finish that seems to change colors in different lighting conditions. Big 16-inch tires lend a sporty look, and optional six-spoke aluminum wheels denote technical sophistication.

Interior Features

Beetle's unique exterior styling is complemented by a unique interior design. A myriad of materials is used to give the Beetle a high-tech look. The upper dash uses coarse, hard materials accented by smoother, softer surfaces elsewhere. Curved, dimpled door handles look ultra-modern. Upper door panels use a matte version of the car's exterior paint. The steering wheel features brushed aluminum spokes and carbon-fiber-looking handgrips. A small vase keeps a small flower looking fresh or holds a plastic daisy.

A big speedometer and tiny tachometer are in a circular gauge panel that glows indigo at night. This complements red lighting used for stereo and heating/air conditioning controls to minimize glare at night. It also looks neat. Sleek radio and heater controls are within easy reach and, but can be difficult to decipher and awkward to operate at speed.

We liked the techno look and found the interior materials to be quite acceptable in quality. It takes a little adjustment to get used to the seating position and general ergonomics. Volkswagen uses a unique set of seat adjustments that use a small jack-like handle to adjust height and an awkward knob to adjust the rake, but they work well once you've grown accustomed to them. The outside mirrors are mounted well forward of the driver, which is actually a better position than that of many other cars which mount them too close to the driver. A huge dash area looms ahead of the driver, who cannot see the hood or anything else but road in front of the windshield. (This big dash area is no doubt part of the New Beetle's excellent crumple-zone design.) Beefy front A-pillars (the post between the windshield and side window) impede vision in tight corners. Beetle's sweeping roofline creates tremendous front-seat headroom, though it cramps people in back. In the old Beetle, the windshield was right in front of your face. Now the windshield is steeply raked and has been moved several feet forward.

Dual 12-volt power outlets and several cup holders make living with the New Beetle convenient. The trunk can be opened by key; we had trouble getting it to open using the remote key fob or interior release. The glove box looks impressive, but its massive door belies the tiny, awkwardly shaped compartment. One-touch power windows are useful. But the rear windows do not open; so rear-seat passengers might feel a little claustrophobic on summer days. The trunk is small, but the rear seats can be folded down to carry more cargo.

Our GLS 1.8T came with the optional leather seating surfaces. The seats are comfortable and attractive. The flat design of the seat bottom makes it easy to get in and out of the seats, but they don't provide sufficient side bolstering for driving quickly on winding country roads.

Driving Impressions

As mentioned, it takes a little time to grow accustomed to the Beetle's unique seating ergonomics. Once adjusted, we were able to drive this car quite hard in corners. Steering response is quick and accurate, though at first you feel like you're driving the car from the back seat. The tires provide good grip and the suspension does an excellent job of keeping them in contact with the road. The Beetle feels quite stable in high-speed sweeping turns. It's smooth and stable under hard braking, though it doesn't stop as quickly as the Golf and other cars in its class. Handling among the different Beetle models is quite similar as the suspension is tuned to provide the same driving characteristics.

The difference lies chiefly in the engines. The standard 115-horsepower engine offers good response and should be perfectly suitable for most drivers. Others have reported they like the TDI diesel engine. Volkswagen builds some of the best small diesel engines in the world and this one is smooth, quiet and clean. It is slightly rougher in texture than the standard gas engine, which some people like because they say it reminds them a bit of the original Bug.

Those who enjoy the driving experience itself will appreciate the new 1.8-liter turbocharged engine. It lacks some response at the bottom of the rpm range, but once the revs are up it provides good acceleration performance. Step on the gas and the car begins to build momentum, then there's a whoosh of power. The Beetle 1.8T can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds, a quite respectable performance.

By comparison, torque from the base 2.0-liter engine comes on at relatively low revs and makes the car feel quite sprightly around town. You won't leave a trail of rubber taking off from a stoplight, but it will keep up with many of the cars in its class.

We prefer the 5-speed manual to the optional 4-speed automatic. That's the way the original Bugs were equipped and shifting gears is part of the driving fun. The automatic works well enough, but it makes the car slower off the line. Overall, the Beetle feels tight and responsive. The ride is smooth and sporty with out undue noise from the road or engine compartment.

Final Word

Volkswagen's New Beetle 1.8T is fun to drive. Its mild manners make for a joyful ride around town. And, of course, its unique styling makes a statement. Driving enthusiasts should find the New Beetle a fun alternative to sport coupes and small sports sedans.

The standard New Beetle, meanwhile, offers a trendy, reliable fun machine that retails for less than $16,000. We'll leave choosing the color up to you, but we like green Beetles and blue Beetles and yellow Beetles.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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