Pros: Plenty of power; distinctive looks; confident highway ride
Cons: So-so fuel economy and handling; not VW's nicest interior
Whatever you do, don't call the completely redesigned 2012 Volkswagen Beetle cute. The cute one, you see, was the Beetle's predecessor, the New Beetle, which famously featured a flower vase on its dashboard. There's no flower vase in the 2012 Beetle, and the styling is considerably more purposeful, highlighted by a lower roofline and a sleeker profile. Heck, it's not even called the New Beetle anymore. To hear Volkswagen tell it, the Beetle's days of being the official car of high-school cheerleaders are decidedly over.
Time will tell, we suppose. But, sheetmetal aside, the 2012 Beetle is a pretty compelling product. Despite starting at a hair under $20,000, the base Beetle has Bluetooth, a 170-horsepower engine and iPod integration as standard equipment. If you want more performance, help yourself to the Turbo, which borrows the sporty GTI's engine and features an upgraded rear suspension. Every Beetle is blessed with VW's characteristic high-speed confidence, so you never feel like you're driving an overmatched economy car. And to brighten up the rather austere interior, you can even get a dashboard that's color matched to the exterior paint.
Of course, the Beetle has some competition. The FIAT 500 and the Mini Cooper are similarly style-driven coupes with superior fuel economy, and VW's own Golf hatchback is arguably a better all-around car for less coin. But cute or not, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle makes a statement. We suspect plenty of car shoppers will be happy to find somewhere else to put their flowers.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle is available in two versions defined by their engines: 2.5L and Turbo. The 2.5L comes standard with classic hubcap-style 17-inch alloy wheels, leatherette upholstery, manual front seats with adjustable height, air conditioning, Bluetooth, a trip computer and an eight-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input and iPod connectivity.
The 2.5L Sunroof package adds, you guessed it, a sunroof, plus a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a touchscreen display for the stereo, satellite radio and keyless entry with push-button ignition. The 2.5L Sunroof, Sound and Navigation package tacks on 18-inch alloys, a navigation system, an upgraded trip computer and a nine-speaker Fender audio system.
The base Turbo model starts with the 2.5L's features and adds sportier 18-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, an independent rear suspension, aluminum-look pedals, sport seats with cloth upholstery and a Cross Differential System, which modulates the inside front brake to minimize wheel spin in hard cornering.
The Turbo's packages are similar to the 2.5L's, except the Turbo Sunroof, Sound and Navigation package also includes 19-inch alloy wheels and leather upholstery.
The Beetle 2.5L's front seats offer VW's familiar firm support on longer drives, although they don't do much to hold you in place around corners. The Turbo's sport seats are better on this count, but you can't get them on the 2.5L. The standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel and height-adjustable seat help accommodate drivers of various sizes, though the wheel may not telescope out far enough for tall folks.
Poking around the Beetle's interior, we noticed generally nicer materials than in the cut-rate Jetta, but the Golf is still the winner among VWs. At least the Beetle's dashboard can be dressed up with body-color inserts, which is a must when you're competing against Mini and FIAT. VW is very proud of the Beetle Turbo's standard Kaeferfach ("Beetle bin") glove box, a heritage feature with an upward-opening door that reminds us of an inverted toaster oven. The Turbo also gets a bank of three secondary gauges atop the dashboard, evoking the Nissan 370Z.
The Beetle's two-person back seat is more usable than the Fiat's or Mini's, but headroom is naturally limited by the sloping rear roofline. The Golf is a better way to go if you want adult-friendly rear quarters. Cargo space is a decent 15.4 cubic feet in the trunk, but maximum capacity is just 29.9 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks flipped forward-that's not very much, especially given that the Beetle isn't really a small car.
The Beetle's standard iPod and Bluetooth connectivity is a nice touch at this price point, although we'd like to see more than just a basic 3.5-mm auxiliary input for the entry-level stereo. VW doesn't provide a USB port, so folks who are used to connecting their tunes via USB will have to adjust. The touchscreen stereo helps with its standard SD card reader. You can put all your MP3s onto an SD card and enjoy the touchscreen's excellent interface for navigating through music folders.
The available navigation system is quite intuitive, and we appreciate that the system can be operated while the car is in motion, allowing your front passenger to navigate while you drive. The screen is rather small, though, and the system is SD based, so it lacks the hard drive music storage of VW and Audi's fancier navigation systems.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Beetle 2.5L is powered by a normally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-5 rated at 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. The transmission options are a five-speed manual and a six-speed automatic. You'll read plenty of criticism about this engine elsewhere, but we're fans of its healthy midrange torque and distinctive five-cylinder growl. The Beetle is all about character, and so is the quirky inline-5.
However, if strong acceleration is a priority, the Turbo's 200-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 is the only way to go. This is the same 2.0T engine that powers the GTI hot hatch, so the Beetle Turbo has plenty of sauce to compete with the FIAT 500 Abarth and the Mini Cooper S. You can't go wrong with the smooth-shifting six-speed manual or the lightning-quick six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
Fuel economy is where the Beetle falters relative to its compact competition, although it's not terrible given how much power is on tap. The 2.5L gets 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway with the manual and 22/29 mpg with the automatic, while the Turbo is rated at 21/30 mpg with the stick shift and 22/30 with the automated manual transmission.
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and four airbags (front and full-length side curtain).
In government crash testing, the Beetle received four stars out of five overall, including four stars for frontal impacts and five stars for side impacts.
The Beetle 2.5L comes with a cost-effective torsion-beam rear suspension that's similar to the Jetta's. Despite this, there's nothing crude about the way it drives. It soaks up bumps with unusual grace by economy-car standards, while the handling is respectable, if not exactly athletic. The Turbo borrows its more sophisticated independent rear suspension from the Golf, but unless you're cornering fast enough to activate the Cross Differential System, you'll only notice a real difference if you specify the optional sport suspension. Even then, the Beetle Turbo can't match the agility of a Mini, but it compensates with a supple, quiet ride and extraordinary high-speed stability.
Other Cars to Consider
Volkswagen Golf/GTI - The Golf and GTI come standard with independent rear suspensions, and their interiors are superior in both quality and space. Plus, the Golf is available with the excellent TDI turbo-diesel engine, which won't be offered in the Beetle till the 2013 model year.
FIAT 500 Abarth - The new turbocharged version of the 500 has a seriously memorable exhaust note, and there's enough power on tap to keep up with the Beetle Turbo.
Mini Cooper S - Still the sports car of this group, the MCS boasts a phenomenal combination of acceleration, fuel economy and handling.
The base Beetle Turbo is a surprisingly good deal at its MSRP of $23,395, undercutting the GTI's starting price by $600. If you're sold on the Beetle's styling, this is a great way to get GTI-grade performance in a distinctive wrapper.