By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Back in the Pleistocene — you know, before the ’90s — a “quick” Beetle (the original air-cooled model designed by Dr. Porsche) was a 12 second car.
Not in the quarter mile.
Zero to 60.
This was of course modified.
A factory stock original model Beetle took anywhere from 15-30 seconds to reach 60 . . . and topped out around 80 or so.
If the road was trending downhill and you had the wind at your back.
It took a lot of work to get a rise out of that 1600 CC flat four: Dual port, high flow heads, nix the factory singular barrel Solex carb and replace it with a pair of high-flow Webers; bolt on headers, zoomie exhaust, high-performance camshaft, high-performance pistons.
The end result was a Bug that could — just barely — keep up with a Prius in straight up drag race.
Fast forward 20 years. The New Beetle is gone.
Enter the R-Line Beetle.
Zero to 60 in the mid-sixxes.
Oh, and the heater works, too.
WHAT IT IS
The Turbo Beetle is the hot-shoe version of VW’s latter-day Beetle (no longer “New” — just Beetle once more).
It comes in two trims: R-Line and GSR, which is a limited-run package centered on a retro-themed yellow and black exterior paint scheme and complementary interior but which is otherwise mechanically the same as the R-Line.
Base price for the R-Line Turbo Beetle coupe with six-speed manual transmission is $24,995. Up that to $26,095 for the same car with VW’s six-speed Direct Shift (DSG) automatic.
The R-Line Turbo is also available in convertible form (base price $29,395) but the GSR will be sold as a hardtop coupe only.
Like the original, the current Beetle is its own fairly unique thing. You might cross-shop the much smaller (and less expensive) Fiat 500 — or wait and see what Mini has done to the 2015 Mini Cooper, which is due to be revealed shortly.
But there is only one Beetle — just like back in the day.
For 2014, VW has infused the Turbo Beetle with an additional 10 hp — up to 210 now from 200 last year. It is also now formally called the R-Line Turbo Beetle, to distinguish it from 2014 Beetles equipped with the new 1.8 liter (and also turbocharged) four that is replacing the non-turbo 2.5 liter five that up to this year has been the Beetle’s standard engine.
There is also the previously mentioned GSR package — available for a limited time only and in limited numbers.
One sad change for the new model year is that VW will reportedly be phasing out the high-end Fender audiophile package, which included an acoustically tuned stereo along with Fender guitar-themed interior accents.
On the upside — if you prefer Geek Chic to Great Tunes — VW’s new Car-Net telematics system is now available in the Beetle and a back-up camera is standard.
A quick Beetle is like a talking chicken. No one expects it, but it’s pretty cool.
New body is more like the original Beetle body in that it’s neither girly-man (as the New Beetle was) nor so manly girls don’t like it.
Surprisingly spacious inside — including 41.3 inches of front seat legroom.
Feels — is — more substantial than Fiat 500.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
A 3,000 lb. Beetle is also unexpected — and not so cool. That’s almost twice the weight of the original. And almost 700 pounds more than a Fiat 500.
Optional DSG automatic and turbo engine are not seamless dance partners. This engine performs much better with the standard six-speed manual.
In my tested convertible model, the satellite radio signal cut out so often it was almost unusable.
Traction control can’t be turned off.
There isn’t even a button anymore.
UNDER THE HOOD
All Beetles will be turbo Beetles from here on out. Two gas — one diesel.
A new 1.8 liter, 170 hp turbo four — which made its debut in the 2014 Passat will replace the 2.5 liter (non-turbo) in-line five as the Beetle’s standard engine as 2014 gets rolling. If you want something else, you can go two ways: more economy — TDI — or more performance, via the 2.0 liter turbo four in the R-Line and GSR.’14 Beetle 2.0 engine.
This engine now makes 210 hp and 207 ft.-lbs. of torque — with peak hp coming into full flower higher up in the power band: 5,300 RPM now vs 5,100 RPM previously.
Max boost is about 24 psi — though the gauge reads to 35.
You can select either the standard six-speed manual or — optionally — VW’s DSG six-speed automatic.
Zero to 60 takes about 6.5 seconds. The manual version is slightly quicker, but the DSG version is most fuel efficient: 24 city, 30 highway.
PS: The latter number tells the story about the demise of the 2.5 liter in-line five. Despite not being nearly as strong as the turbo 2.0 engine, the 2.5 liter’s mileage maxxed out at 22 city, 31 highway – with the manual transmission. With the optional automatic, it slipped to 22 city, 29 highway. In plain English, there was no economy benefit to sticking with the base engine — and no efficiency penalty for choosing the high-performance engine.
The 2.5 liter engine made no sense from either perspective — so sayonara.
All Beetles are, of course, FWD (the original Beetle was rear-engined and rear-wheel-drive).
ON THE ROAD
This new wide-bodied Beetle is a beefy Beetle.
The coupe weighs 2,987 lbs.
Add another 200 pounds for the convertible.
On the upside, the car feels nailed down — “on rails,” to use the much over-used automotive journalism cliche. The original Beetle got tossed around like an empty pop can by crosswinds — not surprising given its 1,600 pound curb weight. The current one rides heavy, securely — like a big car. Which it is. It’s about three feet longer overall than a Fiat 500 (and easily 700 pounds heavier). The almost ten inches difference in wheelbase — 99.9 inches for the VW vs. 90.6 for the Fiat — further enhances stability, reduces dartiness and the need to make frequent steering adjustments to keep the car in its lane.
Despite its hulkiness, the R-Line Turbo easily outruns the Fiat 500 Abarth (7.1 seconds to 60). However, the Fiat feels much fiercer because of its hyper-boosted (30-plus PSI) micro-turbo (just 1.4 liters) engine and an exhaust note more hellacious than an open-piped Harley.
The Beetle’s performance is — like the rest of the car — more mature.
And that seems to have been VW’s objective.
A facet of this maturity is the absence of an off button for the traction control. It is always on — like it or not, want it or not. Forget about standing on the brakes (automatic versions) at a red light while your right feeds it gas to build the boost and get the tires smoking before the light goes green. A small amount of slippage is allowed — but not enough to put on a show. Same goes for power-sliding it through a curve. The car drives as much as you do.
The Beetle — like the Baby Boomer generation — has grown up.
Some might say, grown old.
I personally do not like the you-can’t-drive, so we’ll save you from yourself peremptoriness of it. In the first place, traction/stability control should be optional for those who want it (and don’t mind paying extra for it). Just like a high-end stereo or seat heaters. And in the second place, there should always be an off button — just like they give you for the stereo and seat heaters. There are times when it’s helpful to be able to disable the traction control — as when trying to make your way up a snow-slicked grade. If you can’t turn it off, you stand less chance of making it — of getting stuck. And that isn’t very “safe.” Besides, burnouts — and tire-chirping gear changes — are fun. Why deny us that? We’re paying for the car — and the tires — right?
End of rant.
Included with the R-Line equipment is a tightened-up suspension and 18 inch wheel/tire package (upgradable to 19s) that results in a car with no noticeable body lean, very high levels of lateral grip and which is pretty neutral-steering through a corner. The electric assist power steering feels a little numb — they all do — but the R-Line’s thickly padded (and flat-bottomed) steering wheel makes up for a lot.
The upgraded brakes (red powder coated on my test car) feel track ready in that they get better as they get hotter. When cold, they seem to work less well than the standard car’s brakes — but bed them in a little, heat ’em up some — and they bite like an angry pit bull.
The manual version, as mentioned earlier, is the one I’d pick because it works best with the turbo engine. In DSG-equipped versions, it takes a moment for the boost to build — which telegraphs as sluggishness coming off the line. Once under way, the sluggishness is gone and the transmission — which has both Drive and Sport modes — gears up and down in good time. But the shifts could be more aggressive — in Sport mode especially.
Again, the manual six-speed is the way to go, if you want to make the most of the 2.0 engine’s power — and have the most fun in this car.
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 after all 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 (1998-2010) 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 — and wider.
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-gen. New Beetle.
Interestingly, despite the appearance 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. Another plus that makes the car feel more spacious and open.
Which it is.
In fact, there is only one measure of interior real estate that finds the latest Beetle somewhat lacking — backseat legroom: 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.
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 adults to duck — with just 35.6 inches of headroom vs. 37.1 for the VW.
The current (2014) 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 Eric the Midget from Howard Stern. There’s a mere 29.9 inches of legroom back there.
Forget about it.
But, the 2015 Mini (due out in a couple of months) will be all-new — and may have some surprises in store for everyone.
My test car was a cherry red 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. 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. Less than in a Miata. 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 current Mini’s, an extremely mini 5.7 cubic feet.
I hope it was just an issue with my test car, but the satellite radio reception was atrocious. The radio cut out constantly — making it almost impossible to follow a conversation (talk radio) or listen to a song in its entirety.It would work for 45 seconds or so, then there’d be dead air for the next 15. Repeat. Sometimes, the radio would go dead for a minute or two at a stretch (the display would read “linking” while this was happening) and I don’t think I ever heard a block longer than two or three minutes without at least one 10-15 second dead spot.
To be fair, I live in a mountainous area and there are a few areas where the signal — in all the cars I have test driven — will sometimes briefly cut out. But in the VW it was constant, and no matter where I happened to be. I strongly recommend you try the radio out during a test drive before you buy the satellite radio subscription. VW needs to look into this.
It’s a problem.
Another problem — one that’s not really VW’s fault — is the visibility to the rear in the convertible. The back glass is adequate, but the rear seat headrests — mandated by Uncle in the name of whiplash protection — eat up a fourth of the view to either side, leaving a small rectangle that greatly restricts your rearview — at least, using your eyes. VW tacitly acknowledges this problem, having made a back-up camera with the view behind you displayed on the LCD monitor standard equipment. You could also just pull the backseat headrests — if you don’t need to carry people back there. They are an arguable safety hazard — and VWs are far from the only cars that are compromised in this way. By federal edict, these over-tall, super-sized headrests are now part and parcel of just about every new car. Ironically, they make a crash more likely in the name of improved occupant protection in the event of a crash.
That’s government for you.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What I’d really like to see is the 256 hp version of the 2.0 four — standard in the current Golf R — made available in the R-Line Beetle. That plus maybe 200 or so pounds off the top (or wherever) and the car would likely be in the high fives.
And I’d high five that.