The joy of German automotive engineering is the toy of it all. That’s not a misprint. I meant t-o-y.
Consider the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI — a diesel-powered, front-wheel-drive, compact hatchback coupe that invites you to drive every time you look at it or sit behind its steering wheel.
It is cute, fun, seductive, addictive. It possesses an essential toy factor — an adhesive attractiveness that made us friends with empty boxes as toddlers, that caused us to form allegiances with battery-powered robots as young children or that made us feel safe as long as a “fleet” of plastic aircraft carriers remained on mantelpiece duty in the bedroom at night.
The toy factor is evident in most things German automobile manufacturers do, regardless of price or product segment. BMW brings a smile to the face of anyone who loves driving. Mercedes-Benz allows the rich to be rich sans gravitas — or with as much gravitas as desired. Volkswagen renders automotive joy to the people, which is what the VW Beetle TDI does at a price beginning at $23,295.
It is not a car that will please everyone. Nor is it designed to be.
It is a car for people who want good fuel economy — 28 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway — minus transit boredom. It is zippy, maneuverable and remarkably competent in high-speed highway traffic. But no serious performance driver will mistake it for a racer.
The Beetle TDI has space (15.4 cubic feet with the rear seats up) to carry luggage for a family of four on a road trip of 300 miles or more. But that family will have to exercise discipline in packing to help make the trip comfortable.
Some might mistake the Beetle TDI for a “girly” car — a cute, motorized bauble. But my hunch is that such folks, when it comes to cars, mistakenly conflate manhood with excess — excessive horsepower, speed and noise in a world that no longer can support such disturbance. Such folks also tend to equate manhood and manliness with intimidation — preferring cars with bold grilles, big wheels and an overall demeanor that says, “Get out of my way!”
The Beetle TDI, by comparison, invites you and all around you to smile. The Beetle, based on the Volkswagen Golf platform, underwent a major redesign last year. It has more interior room for heads and legs. The exterior has a more muscular appearance, accented by a front fascia with a larger bumper sharply angle left and right. But even with those changes, the overall demeanor remains joyful, light.
The Beetle TDI driven for this column is a case in point. The exterior wears what VW designers call “tornado red” paint. It is bright. It pops, an effect helped with judicious amounts of aluminum bright work. The “tornado red” theme is carried into the car’s cabin around the tops of interior door panels into the instrument panel. It is simple, pretty. It gives the Beetle TDI a distinct, joyful personality. You want to play with this car.
I did, driving the Beetle TDI in and around Northern Virginia in weather fair and foul on roads good and awful. I loved it. The car’s turbocharged (forced-air) 2-liter inline four-cylinder engine was a hoot! It is a muscle-bound diesel engine (140 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque) also found in TDI versions of the Volkswagen Jetta and Golf.
Volkswagen has a winner in its new diesel Beetle. It goes against other toy-factor cars such as the Fiat 500 (including the pumped-up Abarth version), the Mini Cooper and the VW Golf. It beats them all, especially in value for the dollar.