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Volkswagen Beetle review

Driven October 2011

Volkswagen Beetle review

Say hello to the brand new Volkswagen Beetle. Actually, sorry, we need to pause here. A moment of explanation is required.

This is the new Beetle, but then the last car was also called the New Beetle, and you can’t very well have the New New Beetle. So instead, VW has dubbed this The Beetle.

Oh, and the original is just Beetle. Excellent, glad that’s all cleared up. Truth be told, the last-gen Beetle is the elephant in the room where this Beetle is concerned – Volkswagen is well aware that car enthusiasts like us thought it was a monstrosity of retro kitsch, all flower vases and bubbles, without any real substance. Hence the reason that although it sold well – over a million cars in 13 years – it was never that loved. We were shown a video of 73 years of the Beetle, and the last one flashed up for just a single second.

Volkswagen is hoping the new one will change that. It wants a sportier Beetle, one with some sound engineering behind the still-cutesy looks. As such, the range of engines available is bang up-to-date and covers everything from the excellent 1.2-litre TSI to the car we tested, the Rs 36 lakh (est) 2.0-litre TFSI, via a 1.6-litre diesel. The chassis underneath is largely the same as a Golf, VW’s big hatch – top-spec Beetles get Ford Focus-esque multi-link rear suspension with an electronic differential for the driven axle, but the lower versions only get a torsion beam set-up.

Equally, even the looks have been hardened up. Gone is the triple-bubble look of the previous New Beetle – this one is wider (by 84mm) and longer (by 152mm) but also lower (by 12mm), which gives the car a much squatter stance. VW has also flattened the roof and made the windscreen much more upright – not only does this follow the original Beetle more closely, but also means rear headroom is much better.

Individualisation is also possible, just like in the Mini or Fiat 500, so customers can ‘name’ their own car. In other words, you can choose which rear badge you get. In the UK, this means you’re restricted to Beetle, Volkswagen or Turbo – about as individual as a farmer owning a Labrador. However, you need to push your dealer to let you have the Japanese script. VW tells us this is technically possible, and the wonderfully graphic Japanese letters are far cooler than the standard English choices.

Jump inside, and there are nods to retro. Our car was a top-of-the-line ‘Sport’, so had carbon-fibre-effect dash trim and smart piano-black plastics along the top of the doors, but if you opt for the ‘Beetle’ or ‘Design’ specs, the cars come with body-coloured plastics – just as slick. Equally, the steering wheel is lovely and thin, just like it should be on a car harking back to the days of wooden rims.

But the interior is by no means perfect. The modern VW switches look at odds with the retro stuff, and there are still crap nostalgic touches, such as the flip-up glovebox. This is utterly useless because it’s very shallow – it has to have the airbag behind it. Worse, it feels flimsy. In fact, there are far too many areas of cheap,
hard plastic in here – customers expecting the usual Volkswagen build quality will be disappointed.

Which will also be the case if they want a decent ride. Despite our car being on normal suspension – the optional sport suspension is 15mm lower and even stiffer – the Beetle pattered over lumps and bumps far too much. It simply didn’t feel sophisticated enough, despite having a modern multi-link rear set-up.

Mind you, there’s better news when it comes to the Beetle’s handling, as it’s just as good as a Golf now. You don’t feel like you’re driving a large blancmange anymore, because the Beetle has now got a wider track, front and rear, which helps grip levels and turn in. It’s a sharper car – still not what you’d call a hot hatch, and no better than the similarly-priced Golf, but at least it’s a bit more enthusiastic.

This car is so much better than the current Beetle. It feels sportier and it is good fun to drive – certainly more than most Beetle owners would want or need. We drove the range-topping 2.0-litre TFSI, an engine shared with the Golf GTI, and it certainly gives enough power. It’s been detuned for this car – VW doesn’t want it to match the halo GTI – so here has 197bhp and 279Nm. But the headline 0–100kph only takes 7.5 seconds (0.6 seconds off the GTI) and, with the DSG gearbox, you never drop out of the turbo zone. Oddly, though, that DSG gearbox option doesn’t come with any paddles behind the steering wheel – manual changes have to be done via the gearlever, which feels a bit strange. There will also be a range of smaller motors available, which we suspect might be the pick of the bunch, matching power and price more keenly.

Truth be told, then, The Beetle is much better than New Beetle. But then that’s not difficult – it’s a bit like saying petrol is better than steam. Where you would have to have been classified insane to buy the old car, this one does make a decent case for itself. But more so at the modest end of the car’s price range. The competition among imports at Rs 30 lakh is too serious, even with the VW group. As ever with the Beetle, you’ll be buying it for how it makes you feel, not because it’s the best car for the money.

Piers Ward

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