By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
In some ways, the current Beetle is nothing like the original whose spirit it tries to conjure:
It’s a much larger — and much heavier — car, for openers.
1,500 pounds heavier, at least. Almost a foot longer, overall.
It is also, let’s face it, a much nicer car — as far removed from the ’73 Super Beetle I once drove as a gold dollar is from a slip of Federal Funny Money.
But one thing remains the same — though not in the same way:
The 2014 Beetle TDI will cost you a lot less to drive than something like my old ’73 Super Beetle. The latter was cheap to buy, true — but its best-case mileage was only 28 MPG on the highway.
The ’14 Beetle TDI gives you 41 MPG.
Plus some other things, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Beetle — just “Beetle” now, no more New Beetle — is the retro-reincarnation of the classic vee-dub generations of drivers owned once upon a time — and which many still have a soft spot in their hearts for.
The modern Beetle is neither air-cooled nor rear-engined — but it also doesn’t leak like a sieve, gets to 60 about three times as quickly (really) and has available heated seats in addition to a working heater.
It’s available with two gas and one diesel (TDI) engine, the latter being the subject of this review.
Base price for the ’14 TDI coupe is$24,195 — as compared with $19,995 for the base trim gas-engined Beetle.
A convertible Beetle TDI starts at $28,495.
Because of its iconic status, the Beetle hasn’t really got any direct competition — at least, not in the same way that a Corolla, say, competes against a Civic.
A somewhat similar-in-concept alternative to a Beetle might be a Fiat 500 — but it’s considerably smaller inside and out. The Mini Cooper is another retro-cute possibility. Neither of those two, however, offer the option of a high-efficiency (and high-powered) diesel engine.
Which puts the TDI Beetle in a class by itself.
You can get both a diesel-engined Beetle and a convertible diesel-engined Beetle now. And if you’re an audiophile, a Fender signature package is available that includes dash/door appliques similar to those used on the company’s high-end guitars — plus a top-of-the-line stereo with a subwoofer.
The nostalgia factor — without the original Beetle’s realities.
Diesel is quick and fuel-efficient . . . and it’s available with either an automatic or a manual transmission.
No urea injection!
Beetle is butched-up. Now men can own one, too — instead of buying one for the wife.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
TDI engine takes a moment to “spool up” before forward motion commences.
TDI’s mileage is very good, but gas engines are getting to be almost as good — and they cost a lot less to buy.
Optional GPS map display is on the small side — and a bit dated-looking.
Convertible’s “trunk” is shoebox tiny.
UNDER THE HOOD
The subject of this write-up is the Beetle’s optional 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct-injected (TDI) diesel engine.
It is rated at 140 hp and 236 ft-lbs. of torque and you can order it with either a conventional six-speed manual with your left foot operating the clutch — or, VW’s Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), a six-speed automated manual with a computer and actuators handling the clutchwork.
The obvious bennie of the diesel over the Beetle’s two other gas engines (and the competition’s gas engines) is fuel efficiency. The TDI rates 28 city, 41 manual (with the six-speed manual) and a near-600 mile range on the highway with a full tank.
The Beetle’s other two engines are about 10 MPG less fuel-efficient — maxing out at 31 highway for the base 2.5 liter gas engine with manual transmission.
That’s the good news.
The bad news (for VW) is that some of the Beetle’s gas-engined competition matches (or nearly matches) the diesel Beetle’s economy — without the diesel’s higher up-front costs. The Fiat 500, for example, comes with a 31 highway, 40 MPG ranking — which is actually slightly better than the TDI Beetle — at a starting price of just $16,100. There is also the Mini Cooper, which rates 29 city and 37 highway — and which starts at $19,700. (A new, updated Mini is on deck for 2014; stats were not available at the time this review was written in late fall 2013.)
However, the Mini and the 500 are both smaller cars — much smaller, in the case of the Fiat.
They are also both much slower — especially when ordered with their available automatic transmissions, chiefly because their gas engines produce very little torque, and whatever torque they do produce is only produced once the engine is spun to fairly high RPMs.
The 500’s 1.4 liter gas engine, for example, produces just 98 ft-lbs. of torque — less than half what the TDI Beetle’s engine makes — and it only makes it once the engine reaches 4,000 RPM — vs 1,750 RPM for the TDI VW.
Similarly the Mini. Its 1.6 liter engine produces 114 ft.-lbs. of torque — once again, less than half the torque output of the TDI diesel — and it’s only available once the engine has achieved 4,250 RPM.
These torque-light engines do ok when paired with a manual transmission — because you can rev the engine up to access the available torque (which is what gets a car moving). But when paired with an automatic, acceleration really suffers. The manual-equipped Mini, for instance, gets to 60 in 8.3 seconds, which is decent for a small, economy-minded car. But the same car with the optional automatic takes closer to 10 seconds. Cars in that bracket struggle to merge, have limited ability to pass safely — and so, are often unpleasant to drive.
This dynamic is even more extreme with the 500,. The manual-equipped version is already on the gimpy side — 10.5 seconds to 60. But the same car with the optional automatic is downright palsied: 12.5 seconds to 60. That number is not too far off the pace of a classic (air-cooled) ’73 Beetle.
And the 2014 TDI Beetle?
It hustles to 60 in about 8 seconds flat. And the auto-manual (DSG) version isn’t appreciably slower because the TDI engine produces ample torque — its 236 ft.-lbs. being comparable to a naturally aspirated 3-liter-ish V-6 — just off idle speed.
So, you get the economy — without sacrificing performance.
There is one hair in the soup, though. I’ll get into that now.
ON THE ROAD
The TDI engine is heavily boosted. Look up and right at the accessory gauge cluster that sits on top of the dash. The third gauge to your right. It registers 35 PSI — and the stock TDI engine routinely huffs that high. This is how VW instills excellent performance — to go with the excellent economy.
But, there is noticeable turbo lag coming off the line — with the DSG transmission, at any rate. If you punch it, there’s a moment of nothing-happening while the turbo builds up a head of steam. (The Catch-22 with turbos is they are driven by exhaust gas pressure, but exhaust gas pressure only increases as engine speed increases, so the turbo can’t build full boost before the engine begins to rev. Hence the dreaded off-idle “flat spot” often complained about with turbocharged engines.)
But then — a sudden and very authoritative rush forward. The turbo Beetle may take a moment to gather its wits, but once it does, forward progress is plenty speedy. Roll-on performance is actually pretty impressive. Hit it hard at about 5 or so MPH coming off the line and the front tires will break traction and skitter a bit as the boost needle pegs all the way over — with the DSG gearbox banging off one perfectly timed upshift after the next. With the manual, you’ve got to be careful about too much wheelspin, since it’s possible to drag-launch the thing by bringing up the revs, then dumping the clutch while hammering the gas pedal. It’s very easy to “get a wheel” in second gear . . . trust me.
But the point to take away from all this is you can go either way — manual six-speed or auto-manual DSG — and not lose several seconds to 60, as you will in either the automatic-equipped 500 or Mini Cooper.
And once you’ve achieved 60, the diesel has another advantage over its gas-engined rivals: It conveys relaxation like a cat stretched out on a warm carpet in front of the fireplace. Being a diesel, it burbles along at very high speeds at very low RPM. In sixth at 75, just over 2,000 — considerably less than the RPMs that you’d see on the tachometer of otherwise similar gas-engined cars.
But the TDI is also capable of fairly high RPM operation, too. The redline is 5,000 — which is only about 500-1,000 RPM less than many gas engines’ redlines. In the bad old days, diesels were often done by as little as 4,000 RPM — and this gave them operating characteristics suitable for trucks and farm equipment but less than ideal for high-speed highway running.
A caveat: VW reportedly limits (electronically) the TDI’s top speed to around 114 MPH. If true, it is probably because of the OE tires, which may not be speed rated for faster travel. The electronic limiter can probably be dealt with via a reflash/reprogramming of the car’s computer; just be sure you shoe your Beetle with the appropriate speed-rated tires.
AT THE CURB
I wrote a review of the current Beetle’s butched-up bodywork about a year ago, lamenting the passing of the previous New Beetle’s closer-to-the-original “happy car” looks.
But, I understand why VW did what it did.
Men are half the potential buyer pool. Though the classic-era air-cooled Beetle was equally beloved by men and women, the retro-themed New Beetle was mostly favored by women — and little favored by men. Changing times, whatever — the fact was that the New Beetle was a chick’s Beetle. This Beetle — just “Beetle,” once again — has been restyled to appeal more to the masculine without (hopefully) alienating the feminine.
Apparently, it is working. VW reports strong sales of the new (but not “New”) Beetle — to both sexes.
It probably also helps that the latest Beetle is bigger.
Let’s compare some key stats:
The 2014 Beetle is 7.3 inches longer overall than the previous New Beetle (168.4 inches vs. 161. inches) and 3.3 inches wider (71.2 inches vs. 67.9). The wheelbase has been increased by about 1.1 inches, too — from 98.9 in the New Beetle to 99.9 in the ’14.
This, in turn allowed VW to carve out more front seat leg and shoulder room, which now stand at 41.3 inches and 55.3 inches, respectively — vs. 39.4 inches and 52.8 inches in the previous-gen. New Beetle. Read that last number one more time. There’s 2.5 inches more elbow room in the latest Beetle vs. the previous Beetle.
That, to conjure my Paris Hilton voice, is huge.
Interestingly, despite the illusion of a lower/sportier roofline (part of the butching-up), the current Beetle actually has more headroom up front than the New Beetle did: 39.4 inches vs. 38.2 in the old car.
In fact, there is only one measure of interior real estate that finds the latest Beetle somewhat lacking — backseat legroom. There is a meager 31.4 inches — vs. 33.5 in the previous Beetle. I had my wife try to sit back there and the only way she could do it — without either the driver or the front seat passenger scrunching their seats forward to the fetal-position — was by stretching out sideways.
In sum, the latest Beetle is much more spacious feeling up front — but its back seats are actually less passenger-viable than the old (and smaller overall) New Beetle’s.
On the other hand, the Beetle seems almost limo-like when compared with the Fiat 500 — which has a tight-squeeze-for-two 49.4 inches of front seat shoulder room (that’s 5.9 inches less space between you and whomever’s sitting next to you) and back seats that force most normal-sized adult to duck — with just 35.6 inches of headroom vs. 37.1 for the VW.
The Mini has very decent front seat legroom (41.4 inches) but shoulder room is also much less than in the Beetle — just 50.3 inches. And the back seats are unusable for humans — if they aren’t amputees: 29.9 inches of legroom.
Forget about it.
My test car was a convertible — beautifully fitted and fully automatic. No latches to deal with, just depress a button to open — and close. The only downside — and it’s a downside common to convertibles — is you lose trunk space. That top and all its mechanisms take up space — especially when folded. Thus, the Beetle hardtop’s very respectable 15.4 cubic foot trunk — which is par for mid-sized sedans — drops by nearly half that in the convertible to just 7.1 cubic feet. You do have those back seats, though. And there is a generous pass-through to maximize the available real estate.
I should also mention that the Fiat 500 coupe’s trunk area is just 9.5 cubic feet.
The Mini’s, an extremely mini 5.7 cubic feet.
Like all-too-many-convertibles (and new/late-model cars in general) the Beetle convertible has some wicked blind spots and limited outward visibility. If you come to a T intersection, for instance, and want to turn left, it can be difficult to assess what’s coming at you from the right — at least, without craning your neck forward or creeping the car forward (or backward). In order to meet the latest federal roof-crush requirements, car companies have beefed up — and thickened-up the “B” and “C” pillars, which has had the unintended side-effect of impairing visibility. The upside — in the convertible TDI — is you can drop the top and immediately improve your lines of sight (there are pop-up rollbars to protect you if the car turns turtle).
I was impressed by the slick appearance of the Fender guitar-themed interior enhancements. Also the quality of the Fender audio system.
Worth the coin on either count — and since you get both, it’s a deal.
I wasn’t much impressed by the relatively small LCD display for the optional GPS system (bundled with the Fender package). In addition to being diminutive, the display looks dated — compared with the latest stuff, some of which gives you a 3D bird’s eye view, or even a Google-ized topographical map display.
I loved that the TDI engine does not require urea injection — as most new diesel-powered passenger cars do. This eliminates an expense — and a hassle. There is a particulate filter, but so long as the car is used regularly — which allows the system to get hot enough to burn off accumulated deposits — you will probably never have to worry about it.
It’s just unfortunate that diesel fuel costs, on average, about 40 cents more per gallon than unleaded regular. This really eats into the economic case for any diesel-powered car.
Especially given how fuel-efficient gas-engined cars are becoming.
THE BOTTOM LINE
My ’73 Super Beetle, this isn’t. But that has its pros as well as its cons.
The same goes for this Beetle vs. the recently retired New Beetle. It may no longer be as cute as it was before, but that’ll only take you so far.
Especially with the guys.