By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The latest Beetle (new but no longer “New”) is more than an economy-minded car. It got bigger last year — as well as sportier and more luxurious.
And now the TDI diesel engine — absent from the roster since 2006 — has been reintroduced for 2013.
But, again, the emphasis has shifted.
The TDI engine is bigger (2.0 liters vs. 1.9) and more powerful (140 hp vs. 100) and is now as much about performance as it is about economy. Here’s why:
Though its EPA rating of 31 city/41 highway is excellent, it’s no longer exceptional. There are several gas-powered cars on the market that come close to delivering what the Beetle’s TDI engine can, MPG-wise. For example, the Fiat 500: 31 city, 40 highway; the Mini Cooper: 29 city, 37 highway. Or, the Mazda3 SkyActive: 27 city, 38 highway.
Given that diesel fuel now costs on average 30-40 cents more per gallon than unleaded regular gas (thanks to the government and its “ultra low sulfur fuel” mandates; more on this below) a merely 41 MPG-capable diesel car is probably a harder sell — on the basis of economy as the main consideration — when stacked up against a 38 MPG gas-powered car that costs 30-40 cents less per gallon to fill up — and which (as in the case of cars like the Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper) also costs several thousand dollars less to buy, too.
So, the latest iteration of the TDI Beetle offers more than merely economical operation.
Because it must.
WHAT IT IS
The TDI Beetle is the diesel-powered version of the Beetle — which since the 2012 redesign has been just “Beetle” (not New Beetle).
Like the gas-engined version of the Beetle, the TDI Beetle is available in both coupe and convertible bodystyles and with either manual or automatic (automated manual) transmissions.
Unlike the gas-engined versions of the Beetle — which are so-so when it comes to gas mileage — the TDI Beetle offers excellent economy of operation along with very good performance. Better performance, in fact, than all other Beetles except the 2.0 turbo (gas engine) Beetle.
Prices start at $23,295 for the TDI with six-speed manual transmission. Adding the optionally available six-speed automated manual bumps that up to $24,395.
With the automatic, sunroof and GPS, a TDI Beetle hardtop coupe stickers out at $27,295.
A convertible TDI Beetle starts at $27,895 — and tops out (with the automatic and GPS) at $30,295.
Because there are so few diesel-powered cars on the market — especially at this price point — and because there’s no other car that’s a Beetle — this car hasn’t really got any direct competition. The Fiat 500 is similar in terms of retro-revisitation — but it is a much, much smaller car.
Ditto the Mini Cooper.
The TDI diesel engine returns to the Beetle’s engine lineup after a seven year hiatus. Also new is an available Fender Signature trim package with a dashboard inspired by the legendary rock n’ roll guitars.
TDI diesel is larger — and stronger — than before.
It’s a powerful performer as well as an efficient performer.
New, more macho bodywork should appeal equally well to men as well as women.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
TDI’s mileage is great… compared to a gas-engined Beetle. Not so much when compared to other manufacturer’s gas-powered cars.
New, more macho-looking Beetle has lost some of its harmless & cute”Beetleness.”
UNDER THE HOOD
The 2013 TDI Beetle’s engine displaces 2.0 liters and produces 140 hp and 236 lbs.-ft. of torque at just 1,750 RPM. The previous version (2006) of the Beetle TDI engine displaced 1.9 liters — and made only 100 hp. The extra CCs and hp gives the latest diesel Beetle excellent off-the-line grunt — but unlike diesel engines of the past, the TDI engine is also a (comparatively) high RPM engine. It redlines at about 5,100 RPM — which is about where most gas engines redlined until quite recently. It is also very heavily turbocharged. The factory gauge indicates up to 35 psi of boost. For some perspective, most turbocharged gas engines are fed no more than about 10-12 pounds of boost.
The TDI diesel is still a compression ignition (as opposed to spark ignition) engine, but it gets much of its compression via the turbo rather than static mechanical compression. The net result is a diesel engine that behaves more like a peppy gas engine — or rather, which combines the inherent advantages of a diesel engine’s low-RPM torque production with a gas engine’s freer-revving characteristics up top. What you get is an engine that pulls strong down low, as a diesel ought to — but doesn’t run out of breath in the higher ranges of the RPM band.
The TDI can be teamed up with either a six-speed manual transmission (standard) or VW’s six-speed automated manual. The latter combines the efficiencies of a manual gearbox with the ease-of-use of an automatic. From the driver’s perspective, it works exactly like a conventional (hydraulic) automatic. There is no clutch — for the driver. Just move the shifter to “D” (or “S” sport mode) and proceed.
Performance-wise, the TDI Beetle gets to 60 in just over 8 seconds, making it quicker than the base gas-engined version of the Beetle (9 seconds to 60) as well as much more fuel-efficient. The TDI rates 28 city, 41 highway (with the manual six-speed; DSG versions post 29 city, 39 highway) vs. 22 city, 29 highway for the 2.5 liter, gas-engined Beetle.
All Beetles are FWD.
ON THE ROAD
Maybe you have memories of diesel-powered cars — bad memories. Forget them. This diesel-powered car is — first of all — quieter than some gas-powered cars I’ve driven lately. Many 2013 model year gas-powered cars have direct-injected engines. These tick-tick-tick at idle — some quite audibly. The TDI is direct-injected, too — but amazingly, it is either quieter than gas-direct-injected engines or as quiet as they are.
Under way, too — despite very high pressure turbocharging. There is no audible whistle — and unlike many gas-powered turbocharged cars, no flat spots down low until the boost builds, followed by a sudden surge of power. The TDI is strong throughout its operating range — and with 30 more lbs.-ft of torque than the available gas turbo engine — and all of it available at 1,750 RPM — the TDI actually feels stronger coming off the line, even if the turbo gas-engined Beetle will ultimately get to 60 more quickly. And the TDI walks away from the non-turbo, gas-engined Beetle (2.5 liter engine) which only has 177 lbs.-ft of torque — and which doesn’t peak until 4,250 RPM.
The TDI’s gearing allows 80 MPH at just over 2,000 RPM. You can reach triple digit speeds before you reach 3,000 RPM. The result is a vehicle that continues to deliver very high MPGs even at very high speeds. This is something none of the hybrids are good at, by the way. Run a Prius up to 80 and set the cruise — and you can forget about those 50-something MPG claims. Work a Prius hard and real-world mileage will dip into the low-mid 30s. Trust me. But the TDI Beetle will still return 40 (or better) even at high speeds — and that’s pretty solid.
The car feels — and is — bigger, more solidly planted than previously. Amazingly, it is only slightly heavier. A 2006 New Beetle TDI’s curb weight is 3,016 lbs. The 2013 Beetle TDI — a significantly larger car (more on this below) only weighs 3,073 lbs. Thus, the additional displacement — and power — of the 2013 version of the bigger 2.0 TDI engine goes toward better performance rather than dealing with extra poundage.
Still, if this car weighed 2,800 lbs it’d be quicker still — and more to the point, a lot more economical to boot. The original Beetle only weighed about 1,500 lbs. Imagine the performance — and economy — a 2.0 liter TDI engine might deliver in that wrapper… .
AT THE CURB
How much bigger is this Beetle? 7.3 inches longer overall (168.4 inches vs. 161.1 previously) with about an inch more wheelbase (99.9 inches vs. 98.7 inches) and — the big one — it’s 3.3 inches wider through the hips (71.2 inches vs. 67.9 before). The width is immediately noticeable from inside the car. Where the old New Beetle was a little tight — most definitely a compact — the 2013 Beetle feels mid-sized.
It has nearly two inches more front seat legroom than before (41.3 inches vs. 39.4) and about half an inch more headroom (39.4 inches vs. 38.2) which is surprising given the new car’s “chopped” roofline. However — and just as surprising — the upsized 2013 Beetle’s backseat legroom is less than the old model’s: 31.4 inches vs 33.5 inches before. Possibly, backseat legroom was sacrificed in the 2013 to allow for a larger cargo area behind the backseats, where there is now a mid-sized car’s 15.4 cubic feet of capacity vs. the old New Beetle’s compact car-sized 12 cubic foot trunk.
The net of it all is the 2013 is roomier-feeling for two (and can carry more stuff). Given this kind of car is not generally purchased with a view toward routinely carrying more than two people (driver and front-seat passenger) the diminished back seat real estate is probably a trade-off most potential buyers will be ok with.
What may not be ok with some potential buyers — or at least, traditional Beetle buyers — is the newly macho ‘tude of the car. The old New Beetle (1998-2011) may have had very little in common functionally with the original Beetle (front engine, FWD and water-cooled vs. rear-engined, air-cooled and RWD) but it channeled the non-threatening, unassuming and friendly demeanor of the original perfectly. The old New Beetle — with its happy face and dash-mounted flower vase — was as innocuous as a sunny spring day. It was very hard to hate it — and most people at least liked it in principle.
The problem was, mostly only women bought it.
VW wants the other half of the potential market. You know — dudes. And dudes — for the most part — want a car that’s not perceived as a chick’s car. Hence the 2012 restyle, which is slicker, wider, lower and much sportier — almost proto-Porsche. The less-tall side glass and sharply raked windshield vs the old car’s bubble canopy is especially striking. It reminds me of the 356 Speedster — and who knows? Maybe that was the inspiration.
Personally, I like it. With just one small nit: The combination of the “chopped” roof, super tiny rearview mirror and super-huge backseat headrests (as per Uncle’s anti-whiplash requirements) leaves a mere keyhole of rearward visibility that can be disconcerting at times. This is an issue with a lot of new cars, by the way. Basically, the government has decided that roof-crush strength (and protection against whiplash) is more important than the driver’s being able to see what’s going on around him. You can thank your congressman the next time you see him.
Inside, the changes are even more dramatic. Gone is the 1998-2011 Beetle’s basic, one-piece main gauge cluster with wide sweeping speedo and much smaller — almost accessory — tach/gas gauges underneath. In keeping with the new emphasis on performance, the tach is now twice as big as it used to be — and instead of being almost an afterthought and hidden from view beneath the speedo, it now sits prominently to its left. On the other side of the speedo is an equally up-sized fuel gauge. Up high — on top of the dash, to the right of the main cluster — is stacked an accessory cluster with oil temperature and turbo boost gauges — as well as a stopwatch you can use to time your antics with. Beyond the purely functional design changes, the materials used are of higher quality (or at least, appear to be) and VW has taken to emulating the newly re-popular styling accent of body-colored interior trim plates, such as the dash surround and upper door trim. The Fender package replaces these body-colored pieces with a handsome wood applique that looks like the high-end guitars’ fret board.
The steering wheel is now very GTI-like, with a flat-spotted bottom much smaller central horn button/air bag blob. There are also two gloveboxes now — an upper and a lower. The center console is a little busy — the twin cupholders get crowded by the pull-up parking brake lever and the drop-down arm rest (which also has a small storage cubby built into it).
In sum, the car has been sexed up.
Luxed up, too.
You can order: panorama sunroof, premium Fender stereo rig (to go with the guitar-themed trim plates), GPS, leather interior, Bi-Xenon headlights (with LED DRLs), 19 inch wheel-tire package, multi-stage seat heaters, push-button keyless start … equipment only high-end cars had (and even then, some of this stuff hadn’t been invented yet) when the original Beetle was still being sold. That car was a bare-bones transportation unit with a barely operable heater. Forget heated leather seats. But the original Beetle was much loved despite its antiquity and crudity because it was inherently likable — and dirt cheap to buy and drive.
This one is a much nicer car in every respect. But then, it ought to be — given a loaded example can easily approach $30k. Even the base $19k Beetle is not an inexpensive car relative to the numerous cars available for around $13-15k or so. Which is why the latest Beetle is such a nice Beetle.
It pretty much has to be. Or rather, it better be.
The last time you could get a new (that is, not used) Beetle with a diesel engine was 2006 — not because the TDI-equipped Beetle wasn’t popular (it was) but because VW (like every other automaker) faced almost-insurmountable problems “certifying” a diesel-powered anything for sale in all 50 states. Some states — major markets, like California — had different (and stricter) tailpipe emissions laws than others. That meant one car for California — and another the rest of the country. It was too cumbersome — and too expensive — to bother with. Brands — like VW — that sell vast fleets of diesel-powered vehicles in Europe simply threw their hands up in exasperation.
Now there is “low sulfur” (and thus, low emissions) diesel fuel available nationwide — and this makes it feasible to once again sell diesel powered cars like the TDI Beetle nationwide. Because they meet with Uncle’s approval.
But, there’s a catch.
The low-emissions low sulfur fuel is more expensive to brew — which is why diesel now costs more than regular unleaded gas. This has undermined the economic case for diesel-powered cars as an alternative to gas-powered cars — especially now that many gas-powered cars are posting EPA MPG stats very close to what a car like the Beetle TDI can deliver — such as the Fiat 500, Mini Cooper and Mazda3 SkyActive mentioned earlier.
Then, on top of this, you have to pay more to get the diesel. $3,500 more, to be precise. That is the difference in MSRP between the standard-issue, gas-engined 2013 Beetle ($19,795) and the TDI Beetle ($23,295). To soften the blow somewhat, VW has “contented” the TDI with additional equipment that isn’t included in the base price of the $19k gas-engined Beetle, including most noticeably a six-speed gearbox vs. the Beetle 2.5’s five-speed transmission. You also get satellite radio standard.
Still, $3,500 more up front plus 30-40 cents more per gallon at every fill-up may prove to be a problem for the sales prospects of this otherwise appealing car.
If the best gas-engined cars were still making only low 30s on the highway — and if diesel fuel still cost the same (or less) than gas, then the economic advantages of a car like the TDI would be inarguable.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case at the moment. This may change if the cost of regular unleaded soars to $5 a gallon — -which it very well might. And if you plan on driving your new TDI for 300k, probably you will come out ahead in the end. And there is also the fact that the TDI engine is simply a great engine. It’s much stronger-feeling than the Beetle’s base gas engine — and vastly more fuel-efficient than the Beetle’s optional turbo gas engine.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s good to have the TDI back in the mix.
But it’d be even better if it could deliver 50 MPG.