By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Back in the day — back in the early-mid ’70s — some people didn’t like the Super Beetle (as opposed to the original Beetle) because the Super had a strut front end and some other changes that made it more complicated and expensive to buy and own.
Now comes the new New Beetle — only it’s just called Beetle once again — and some people may not like it for similar reasons.
It is fairly expensive, for one — almost $19,000 for the base model. (About $300 more than the old New Beetle.) It weighs more than the old New Beetle did — and has less cargo space. It’s not very fuel efficient, either (22 city sucks; 31 highway is mediocre for a compact FWD four-cylinder coupe with just 170 hp) and there’s no TDI diesel engine option — at least, not yet.
It’s also no longer cute. VW has retooled the Beetle to look “sportier” (read: less feminine) and so appeal more to guys, who tended not to buy the old New Beetle. But will the guys be interested given there’s only 200 hp available (not all that much compared to what’s available in other sporty cars) and besides, you can get the same package in the Golf GTI for about the same money… ?
All of which has me wondering whether this is a belly-flop in the making.
WHAT IT IS
The Beetle is a compact-size, two-door hardtop (convertible version on deck for later in 2012) sort-of economy car. Prices start at $18,995 for a base trim with 2.5 liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. A Turbo Black equipped with the 2.0 liter turbocharged engine six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), an automated manual, goes for $24,950.
The Beetle’s target competition includes the Mini Cooper ($19,400 to start) and Fiat 500 ($15,500 to start) among others.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
VW has given the Beetle a complete exterior and interior makeover, though the standard and optional engines are the same as last year’s old New Beetle.
Still recognizably a Beetle.
Wider, roomier inside — with better-fitting back seats.
Costs less than the Mini Cooper.
Slightly quicker than a Fiat 500.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Costs a lot more than a Fiat 500.
Gets nowhere near as good gas mileage (22 city, 31 highway) as the Mini Cooper (29 city, 37 highway).
Really just a Golf with a custom body, higher price tag and (so far) no diesel engine option.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Beetle’s new again, but its engines aren’t.
The base model comes with the same 2.5 liter, 170 hp five cylinder as the old New Beetle with the step-up option being the same 2.0 liter, 200 hp turbo four also used previously. It’s also identical to the Golf GTI’s powerplant.
The 2.5 liter engine comes paired with either a five-speed stick or a six-speed automatic. The turbo two can be teamed up with either a conventional six-speed manual or a six-speed automated manual called DSG, or Direct Shift Gearbox.
The 2.5 liter engine stacks up ok, power-wise (and even performance-wise) relative to the standard engines in other cute economy compacts like the Fiat 500 (1.4 liters, 101 hp) and Mini Cooper (1.6 liters, 121 hp) but its gas mileage is below par. Both the Fiat 500 and the Mini Cooper deliver city mileage (30 MPG and 29 MPG, respectively) that’s about as good as the Beetle’s highway mileage (31 MPG).
And the Beetle’s 22 MPG city is just sorry for a current-year compact packing just 2.5 liters and only 170 hp. (A new Mustang with a V-6 and 300-plus hp gets 19 city, just 3 MPG less than the 2.5 liter, 170 hp Beetle.) Weirdly, this identical engine (and transmission) returns 23 city, 33 highway in the Golf. I have no idea why you lose an MPG or three in the Beetle, which is about the same size and weighs about the same, too.
There is an upside, though.
If you order the optional turbo 2.0 engine, you’ll actually get slightly better mileage than the 2.5 liter engine delivers, despite the additional 30 hp you get as part of the deal.
For whatever reason, VW has decided not to offer the 2.0 liter turbo-diesel (TDI) you can order in the current Golf. That’s a shame, because it would give the Beetle 40-plus MPG capability on the highway — clearly better than its target competition — and 30-plus MPGs around town, which beats hell out of 22 MPG.
ON THE ROAD
There ain’t nothin’ wrong with it — it’s just nothing special. If you’ve driven the old New Beetle (or the current Golf/Jetta/GTI) then you’ve already driven the new Beetle. Or at least, you know how it drives.
What you’re getting is a custom wrapper, not a new driving experience.
The base version with the 2.5 liter engine makes for a good commuter/everyday car — except for its not-so-great gas mileage. One wonders (well, I wonder) why VW didn’t at least put a six-speed manual (with tighter gear spacing for better economy and performance) behind this engine. It is 2012, after all — and five speed manuals are so … 2005. The Mini Cooper comes standard with a six speed manual — which helps explain why it’s quicker 0-60 and about 5 MPG more economical, too.
The Fiat 500 comes with a five-speed — but it can get away with not having the additional gear (and tighter spacing between gears) because it’s such a flyweight. It tips the scales at just 2,300 pounds — or about 600 pounds less than the beefy Beetle.
This is also why both cars — the base Beetle with the 2.5 liter engine and the Fiat with the 1.4 liter engine — deliver roughly similar 0-60 acceleration, even though the VW has 70 more hp than the Fiat. The 2.5 liter Beetle gets to 60 in about 8.8-9 seconds while the 500 is about 1 second behind it. Both cars are borderline slow for 2012 — but the Fiat makes up for this with excellent fuel economy.
The Mini smokes ’em both, acceleration-wise and still delivers good fuel economy, too.
Choose the optional turbo and you get much better acceleration out of the Beetle (0-60 in about 7.5 seconds) along with suspension tuning and handling feel that’s very GTI-ish. The package includes 18 inch wheels (19s are optional) as well as paddle shifters if you buy the DSG auto-manual transmission.
There’s a wildly optimistic (180 MPH) speedo (top speed is electronically limited to 130) and available carbon-fiber appliques.
On top of the dash, you can order a set of accessory pod gauges to further manly things up.
It’s sportier, yeah — but in my opinion, the charm of the original layout has been sacrificed without replacing it with anything particularly distinctive.
Virtually every new car on the road is styled to look “sporty” and has “sporty” gauges and offers the carbon fiber inserts, which used to be unusual race-car type stuff 15 or 20 years ago but now… yawn.
AT THE CURB
The original Beetle (the old old one) managed to appeal to men and women equally but the old New Beetle was most definitely a chick car — which was a problem for VW. More than 60 percent of buyers were female. The new Beetle has been butched up to try to appeal to guys — the other half of the potential buyer pool. It’s flatter and sleeker than before, with a haunchier squat. Turbo-equipped versions can be ordered with a very Porsche-like rocker panel TURBO decal — and feature red powder-coated brake calipers and a ducktail spoiler out back.
Inside, you’ll find no vase — but you will find more real estate. The ’12 Beetle rides on a longer wheelbase (99.8 inches vs. 97.1 previously) and — the really noticeable item — it is 4.9 inches wider than it used to be (71.2 inches for the 2012 vs. 66.3 for the old New Beetle). The additional shoulder room and repositioned back seats that make the back seats usable are two big improvements. You’ll also find more room for stuff. With the rear seats in place, the new Beetle has 10.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity; almost twice what you’ve got to work with in the Mini Cooper (5.7 cubic feet) and more than in the Fiat 500 (9.5 cubic feet).
Like the Fiat 500 and the Mini Cooper, the Beetle can be extensively personalized with custom paint/decals and a panoply of dealer-installed a la carte equipment.
When the old New Beetle came out way back in 1998, it was a novelty item that tugged at buyers’ memories of the original. But today, there are so many “retro” themed cars that the novelty value has probably worn off. The new Beetle doesn’t stand out like the old New Beetle did back in ’98, when it was the only car of its type on the market. The redesigned 2012 model faces not just direct competition, but tough competition — especially from the appealing little Fiat 500, which starts out almost $3,500 less, more than matches the Beetle on cuteness — and cleans its clock at the pump.
I think VW has made a major mistake positioning this car. The new Beetle costs about $1,000 more to start than the functionally similar Golf (which also offers a high-economy diesel engine that the Beetle doesn’t) and other than the still-iconic Beetle cosmetics, you’re not getting $1,000 more car.
You’re getting less car, actually (remember: the new Beetle gets worse gas mileage than the lower-priced Golf, adding insult to injury).
But the more serious problem — not just for the 2012 Beetle but for VW generally — is the tighter times we live in. People expect more than 22 MPG — and they want more than a rebopped body on top of mostly the same-same we’ve been served for years now.
They also want affordability — and simplicity (to the extent that it’s possible in a modern car). Note, for instance , that the Fiat comes with 15 inch wheels, which means lower-cost 15 inch tires instead of the VW’s trendy but pricey 18 and 19 inch wheels … and tires.
Whatever happened to the Volks in Volkswagen?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Had VW gone really retro and brought back an affordable Beetle — say $15,000 or so — that also got 40 MPG with a gas engine and maybe 50 with a diesel — I think they’d sell them faster than they could build them.
But this redo strikes me as not enough of the right stuff — and maybe too much of the wrong stuff.
I guess we’ll see… .