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They were slow, ungainly, noisy, cramped and uncomfortable. Passengers froze on cold days. But people loved them. For countless American Baby Boomers growing up in the turbulent 1960s, the Beetle was not just a piece of transportation. It was an obsession. To some, its worst traits only made it more endearing.
The Volkswagen Beetle could have been a cult car, had it not been for its huge popularity. Nearly 21 million Beetles were produced during the past 59 years--more than any other automobile in history. That's in spite of the fact that there hasn't been a Bug legally imported into America since 1979. But if you've dreamed of buying one or longed to own another, your opportunity has arrived.
The Beetle's Back.
Well, not precisely. Volkswagen officials take great pains to point out that this is the "New Beetle," far more than just an update of the car that helped define an American generation.
The New Beetle is based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf. As a result, it's far roomier than the original. The engine is up front powering the front wheels, not the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration of the old Bug. Two new engines are available, both water-cooled, not air-cooled.
But some traits remain: Just as with the original, Volkswagen put a premium on reliability. But definitions have changed over the years: The original Beetle would seemingly run forever-if you didn't mind getting your fingernails dirty fixing a loose wire or adjusting the valves. Today's buyers expect a bulletproof Beetle that starts every time they turn the key; no one, it seems, has time to carry around a tool kit any more.
Purists will lament all the changes. Yet even they are likely to be won over by the roominess, ride and creature comforts of the New Beetle. At least that's the way it's been shaping up.
There's an uncanny similarity in shape to the original Beetle. Volkswagen has captured the essence of the Bug. The New Beetle looks goofy and cute at the same time, like a childhood friend with a silly grin that never failed to get you laughing. Everywhere we went in this car we were greeted with waves and broad smiles.
But park the old and New Beetle side by side and you realize just how different they are. The new shape is thoroughly modern. Chrome bumpers have been replaced with integrated, color-keyed bumpers. Gaps between doors, fenders and other body panels are some of the tightest we've seen.
Look beneath the skin and differences become even more apparent. Safety is a watchword today and it was a watchword in the New Beetle's design. Crumple zones and other features enhance crash protection, a benefit of sharing the Golf platform. Dual front and side airbags are standard. Antilock brakes are an option.
A rigid chassis results in a smooth, controlled ride and little noise, vibration and harshness. There's real storage in the form of a surprisingly roomy trunk. Fold down the rear seats and there's still more space at hand.
The original Beetle was an economy car and it looked it. At $15,200 in today's new car market, the New Beetle is still a good buy, but visually it tells a different story. It looks up-market and up-tempo. The colors--eight of them--are sophisticated. Cyber Green, for example, is a pearlescent metallic finish that seems to change colors as it passes by. Chunky 16-inch tires give the car a sporty look, and optional six-spoke aluminum wheels underscore its technical sophistication.
That techno-styling is even more apparent inside. Except for the delightful little bud vase, the interior of the New Beetle is anything but retro. Nor is it spartan. While cars in this price class tend to have plain vanilla interiors, the new Bug's look is rich and surprisingly sophisticated, almost a work of art.
Brushed aluminum spokes and carbon-fiber-looking handgrips give the steering wheel a high-tech look and the theme is carried sparingly throughout. Creative, though controversial, upper door panels use a matte version of the car's exterior paint. A red interior strip on our fire-red Beetle provided a striking contrast to cream seats and black carbon fiber trim.
Speedometer and other gauges are clustered to make them easily readable between the steering wheel spokes. Somehow they seem a step forward into the past-a sort of retro/techno design.
Ergonomics were a top design priority throughout. Sleek radio and heater/AC controls are within easy reach of the driver in a center console that sweeps out of the instrument panel. Seats are far more comfortable than those in the Beetle of old. Adjustment controls work well except for an awkwardly placed recliner knob.
A sweeping roofline creates tremendous front-seat headroom, though it cramps people in back. In the old Beetle, the windshield was right in front of your face. Now the windshield is steeply raked and has been moved several feet forward. Beefy front A-pillars aren't as easy to see around, but there is so much glass in the New Beetle that it is not a serious obstacle.
Small features like dual 12-volt power outlets and four cupholders make living with the New Beetle more convenient. The trunk can be opened by key or with a remote electric switch located near the driver. The glovebox looks impressive, but its massive door belies the tiny, awkwardly shaped compartment. One-touch power windows are useful. But the rear windows do not open, so rear-seat passengers might feel a little claustrophobic on summer days.
Driving is where the difference between the old and New Beetle is really evident.
Step on the accelerator and, well, there's acceleration. The New Beetle may not qualify for pocket rocket status, but it's no sloth, either. Torque from the base 2.0-liter engine comes on at relatively low revs and makes the car feel quite sprightly around town. You won't leave a trail of rubber taking off from a stoplight, but it will keep up with most of the cars in its class.
Playing off of the famous Volkswagen ads of the '60s, one of the new ads cheerfully acknowledges the New Beetle is no hot rod: "0 to 60? Yes."
That familiar exhaust note and the metallic sound of those solid lifters has been replaced by an incredibly quiet car. Wind noise is surprisingly low at cruising speeds, only making itself apparent at 80 mph.
For maximum sports appeal, we recommend the 5-speed manual over the optional 4-speed automatic. It's more fun to drive. The automatic works well enough, but it gives up a little low-end acceleration and makes the car seem thrashy on pedal-to-the-metal standing starts.
Tight, linear, responsive steering with a solid, on-center feel and a smooth, sporty ride replaces that loose feeling we remember in the original Beetle. Its four-wheel independent suspension, provides ride and handling that suggests a much more expensive automobile.
Despite all the nostalgia, Volkswagen engineers recognized they couldn't get away with making the New Beetle an old car. Buyers might have some fond memories of the Bugs they drove in their youth, but with so many other great products on the market, they want performance and looks.
The good news is that this is precisely what the New Beetle delivers. It's cute, but it's competitive. It's a no-excuses automobile that you'll be proud to show off and drive.
So if you're one of the many who've been waiting for the return of the Beetle, your wait is over-if you can find a dealership that can keep the car in stock. They'll only make 50,000 for the U.S. this year. It might be a challenge to find one.