There is an undeniable appeal to a nostalgia ride, whether it be a Mini Cooper, a new Fiat 500 or the car that really started it all: the Volkswagen New Beetle.
Now, the 2012 VW Beetle has received a much-needed update. The result is a more sophisticated coupe that's also a better daily driver.
Though the Beetle — dropping "New" from its name — is high on style and comfort, the engine is particularly loud, disrupting an otherwise pleasant driving experience.
There is perhaps no car more iconic than the Beetle. Maybe the Jeep Wrangler is as identifiable, but no other car has been so loved that it spawned a childhood pastime like slugging a sibling in the arm at the sheer sight of one on the road.
The 2012 is a seamless transition from the New Beetle that debuted to wide acclaim in 1998. Hard edges now replace rounded shapes on the front bumper; a steeper windshield adds more blockiness; and a higher belt line means narrower windows and a sleeker profile. The rear is still as curvy as ever, though, with wild taillights finishing the look.
VW makes no apologies for the sharper design, saying it is deliberately more masculine.
Inside, the integrated flower vase is gone, but it won't be missed in the high-style layout. A typical two-tone interior color scheme, like tan seating with a black dashboard, is accented by piano black along the doors and dash. That trim can be replaced with white or red lacquer accents — to match the exterior color — on certain trim levels.
The elegantly done gauge cluster is unique to the Beetle. The three gauges fit the shape of the car better than the wider, two-gauge cluster found in the Jetta and Passat. Materials quality is definitely appropriate for the car's price; it's much more akin to the new Passat's higher-caliber interior than to the Jetta's, which aims at entry-level buyers and costs thousands of dollars less.
The front seats are comfortable, with plenty of support, but I found them a bit narrow for my back and shoulders. I assume smaller occupants will be more comfortable. You'll also have to be smaller to enjoy the tight confines of the backseat. This is to be expected in most coupes, though, and while the specifications don't suggest it, there certainly seems to be more room inside the Beetle than you'll find in tinier competitors like the Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper.
If you're buying the Beetle for its style but want affordability, you'll want to opt for the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine; that version starts at $20,895 with an automatic. It's a competent powertrain, but the engine buzzes loudly, intruding into the cabin even during modest acceleration. The six-speed automatic transmission is simply adequate. A manual base model will be released in 2012 and will start at $18,995.
The base engine's 170 horses get you to highway speeds with assurance but not exhilaration, while steering is a bit vague. The brakes are above average. Does this sound like a ringing endorsement? It shouldn't to performance fans, but most buyers will appreciate the Beetle's very comfortable ride, airy cabin, and lack of road and wind noise — especially considering the wind was extreme most of the time I tested this car.
The 2012's addition of more than 3 inches of width means there's more stability when taking sweeping off-ramps, along with more room between front occupants. But it doesn't feel nimble like a Mini, which is 5 inches narrower.
The biggest negative is the loud engine and subpar mileage, rated 22/29 mpg city/highway with the automatic. The Mini Cooper gets 28/36 mpg with an automatic, while the Fiat 500 gets 27/34 mpg.
Upgrade to the Beetle Turbo versus the 2.5L and you'll be making an investment in driving enjoyment. For the extra $3,600 — no small sum — the turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder offers spritely acceleration, snappier handling, a Sport mode that actually feels sporty, and a warbling engine noise that sounds welcoming. (It's still too loud, though.)
The 200-horsepower turbo doesn't seem like much of an upgrade on paper, but teamed with a dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission, this car far outpaces the base model.
The Turbo doesn't even give up much ride comfort for the added fun quotient, and it gets better mileage: 22/30 mpg.
Performance junkies still won't find the Beetle Turbo to be enough for them, despite its limited-slip differential for better handling. That's why VW sells a GTI version of its Golf hatchback. For those interested in the Beetle mystique, the Turbo delivers just enough.
A diesel Beetle will be released sometime in 2012, with estimated mileage of 29/40 mpg.
Features & Pricing
The base Beetle, with a starting price of $18,995 with a five-speed manual transmission, won't go on sale at the model's launch, and VW is not advertising it yet; it's expected next year. When 2012 Beetle sales begin this fall, the least expensive version will be the next higher trim level, called the Beetle L, at $19,795.
When they arrive in 2012, base Beetles will come with 17-inch alloy wheels, power windows with one-touch up and down, cloth seats, cruise control, 50/50-split folding rear seats, a trip computer and an eight-speaker stereo.
The L adds leatherette (faux leather) seating, heated front seats, a second glove box, Bluetooth and a media interface for digital accessories like iPods and smartphones. Automatic-transmission models start at $20,895. A base Mini Cooper with an automatic is $20,750.
Instead of separate options, VW creates trim levels. The next one up, the 2.5L with Sunroof, goes for $22,295 with the manual, $23,395 with the automatic. It adds a large panoramic sunroof that makes an already bright cabin even more open. It also includes a center armrest, a leather steering wheel with controls for the trip computer and stereo, keyless entry, push-button start, a touch-screen radio and three months of Sirius Satellite Radio.
The Beetle L with Sunroof, Sound and Navigation is $24,095 with the manual and $25,195 with the automatic. It adds 18-inch wheels, a navigation system and a premium Fender stereo.
I tested the Fender system with my iPhone, streaming music from Spotify, and it worked well. Sound quality is good, and there's plenty of bass when you want it. The navigation system and interface are a tad quirky, and there will be a learning curve if you're coming from another system. Even though it looks like a portable Garmin nav system, the inputs and controls are very different.
A similarly equipped automatic Mini Cooper is $25,750, and it can be had only with 17-inch wheels.
The Beetle Turbo starts with the features of the Beetle L at $23,395 with a manual and $24,495 with the DSG automatic transmission. It adds 18-inch wheels, alloy pedals, fog lights, gloss-black exterior mirrors, glossy black interior trim, sport seats with upgraded cloth, and a leather shift knob.
The Turbo's uplevel trims vary slightly from the L's. Next up is a Beetle Turbo with Sunroof and Sound that goes for $26,395 with the manual, $27,495 with the DSG. It gets the same extras as the L's Sunroof package, plus the Fender premium stereo.
The top trim is the Beetle Turbo with Sunroof, Sound and Navigation, which mirrors the L options but adds real leather seats and leather trim on the doors and dash. It costs $27,995 with the manual and $29,095 with the DSG.
At this time, the 2012 Beetle has not been crash-tested by either the federal government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Beetle comes standard with four-wheel-disc brakes, stability control and side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers.
Beetle in the Market
At first glance, the Beetle seems like an oddity. Do shoppers want another nostalgia-laden two-door hatchback? But the car's high-quality interior and style, plus its competitive price, mean it can go toe-to-toe with the Mini Cooper, offering a more civilized driving experience — if not as much fun behind the wheel.
Starting MSRP $18,995–$24,950
Highway: 29 – 30
200-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (premium)