2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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You wouldn't think that one of the oldest nameplates in the automotive business could end up with an identity crisis, but with the launch of the latest Beetle that's exactly what has happened to Volkswagen's most iconic model.

The thing is, when Volkswagen revived the Beetle as a front-wheel drive, water-cooled car in 1997 - some 17 years after the last cabriolet version of the original rear-drive, air-cooled Beetle was sold in North American markets - it named the reborn bug the New Beetle.

Which is all fine and well, except now Volkswagen has again reinvented the Beetle, giving it an all-new body that's far less "cute" and much more "athletic," being longer, wider and lower, and based on the Jetta's A5 architecture instead of the previous Golf platform. But you can't call this updated car the new Beetle, because the New Beetle is now the old Beetle. So I guess this is the next Beetle, although after a week at the wheel of a turbocharged Reef Blue Sportline model, I think "better Beetle" might be more apropos.

By slightly flattening the roofline and hood line, and pushing the greenhouse aft, Volkswagen has at once made the latest Beetle more masculine looking and more faithful to the original Beetle's shape, while still ending up with a more modern-looking car. Sure, there will be some consumers who are going to miss the New Beetle's caricature cuteness and dash-mounted bud vase, but the latest car should have a far broader appeal.

Inside, the 2012 Beetle offers comfortable, spacious front seats (which still boast abundant headroom, if not quite as much as the New Beetle), and a surprisingly comfy back seat as well. The view forward is vastly improved thanks to the somewhat more upright windshield, which negates the need for the New Beetle's vast shelf of a dashboard. In the 2012 Beetle there's a useful cubby atop the dash, while the face of the dashboard is styled to recall the 1960s-era Beetle, with a body-coloured insert spanning the dash and flowing into body-coloured door panel uppers. There's even a small secondary glove box with its cover exactly where 1960s Beetles had their glove box lids. Below this, concealed in the lower dash, is a more usefully sized glove box.

I drove a red Highline trim Beetle briefly and it's interior took me right back to my childhood, riding in my parents' first red Volkswagen, but my test car's Sportline trim toned down the interior's retro-styling somewhat through the use of black faux carbon-fibre for the dash insert and gloss black for the door panel uppers, instead of body-coloured materials. The Sportline trim also adds leather upholstery, but in either case the Beetle's interior is very nicely detailed, with premium-feeling fit and finish. I was particularly impressed with the sharp-looking instruments and the colour-selectable ambient lighting that includes glowing rings around the door speakers, but I was disappointed by the lack of any accessory mode with the pushbutton start - shutting off the engine kills the audio system immediately, which rather encourages needless idling. I was also slightly puzzled by the one-touch power windows, which occasionally seemed to have a mind of their own, closing halfway and then opening again. I suspect this was likely caused by the brand new window seals offering enough resistance to trigger the window's pinch protection system. This was also a problem with the red 2.5-litre Beetle I previously drove, so it may be inherent to the design.

In back, the luggage compartment is reasonably spacious, but the rear seats don't fold entirely flat. So while you can make room for long items like snowboards or what-have-you, the Beetle certainly doesn't offer wagon-like cargo capacity. It does, however, offer plenty enough room for most daily errands.

Under the hood, the Beetle offers two engine choices. Comfortline and Highline models get a 2.5-litre 5-cylinder engine that delivers 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque through either a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed Tiptronic automatic. Sportline models, like my test car, get a turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine that churns out 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, and is hooked up to either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed Tiptronic automatic. Backstopping the Sportline's extra power are bigger 18-inch wheels and a sport suspension that includes a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension in place of the regular Beetle's Jetta-based torsion beam setup.

All these bits and pieces give the Sportline Beetle a truly sporty demeanour. My test car was fitted out with the optional DSG Tiptronic automatic, and like other DSG-equipped Volkswagens I've driven I found it a little too eager to upshift in city traffic, dulling the car's responses in search of the best possible fuel economy. But once you slip the transmission from "D" (dawdle) into "S" (scoot) the turbocharged Beetle comes alive, delivering higher shift points and more aggressive downshifts in automatic mode, or full manual control via the steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters (one beef here is that I'd prefer larger, more substantial paddles - the existing paddles are tiny little plastic affairs).

The turbocharged 4-cylinder engine has a distinctively growly exhaust note that sounds somewhere between a direct-injected diesel and the old air-cooled Beetles of yore (if that sounds like an insult, it's not - I rather liked the exhaust note) and it has buckets of low-end grunt, launching the car with authority and pushing it to 100 km/h in about 6.5 seconds. Torque steer is so well-controlled as to be nearly non-existent, and thanks to the sport suspension and big tires the turbo Beetle offers noticeably better handling than the standard Beetle - it's pleasingly grippy with quick, accurate steering and relatively neutral balance. Push it hard enough and the Beetle Turbo will still revert to understeer, but the multi-link rear setup means it takes longer to get there and feels more connected in the meantime.

Price-wise, the Beetle starts at  $23,340 (destination fees included) for Comfortline trim, which includes 16-inch alloy wheels, a full array of safety equipment and wide range of comfort and convenience features. The Highline trim starts at $25,590 destination-in and adds bigger 17-inch wheels and various key features such as fog lights, keyless entry, colour-selectable ambient lighting, and chrome interior trim. City/highway fuel economy with these models is 9.9 / 6.4 L/100km with the manual transmission, and in either case the automatic transmission is an additional $1,400.

My test car's Sportline trim starts at $30,390 with the 6-speed manual or $31,790 with the automatic (destination in) and not only includes the turbocharged engine, multilink suspension, 18-inch wheels and leather upholstery, but also a standard rear spoiler, red brake calipers, dual exhaust, alloy pedals, black-painted mirrors and various other additional features. City/highway fuel economy with the turbo Beetle is 10.3 / 6.7 L/100km with the manual, 9.9 / 6.5 with the automatic, and premium fuel is required. My test car, which included a must-have $675 Bluetooth connectivity package and a $1,290 Technology package featuring an awesome-sounding 400-watt Fender audio and touch-screen navigation system, came to $33,755 including destination fees.

With this range of pricing the latest Beetle is not only a better Beetle - a car with real substance and style - but it also represents good value. Compared to a three-dour Golf GTI, which carries a base price of $30,740 including destination, the base turbo Beetle offers the same potent powertrain and gives up little if anything in regards to practicality or handling, yet comes in at $350 less while offering a unique - and now truly stylish - retro flair. That's the kind of value as timeless as the Beetle itself.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sports Coupe, Volkswagen, VW, 2012, Beetle, $30,000 - $39,999, Compact,

Organizations: Volkswagen

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