The Volkswagen New Beetle isn't that new anymore, but still smart and stylish. And because it's a Volkswagen, it's refined. Der Beetle combines German engineering and performance with exceptional fit and finish, and it represents a good value. As in other retromobiles, however, driver and passengers must make some concessions for style. Interior ergonomics are not as good those in a more traditional car, like a Golf, nor is there a lot of trunk space.
But the Beetle is charming. It comes in an assortment of bright, happy colors, including Tornado Red, brighter than last year's red. Its exterior and interior design details are fun and creative. On the road, the Beetle is smooth and sophisticated and handles well.
The convertible adds to the fun with its ability to drop the top. It feels tight. Volkswagen engineered a solid chassis with none of the cowl shake common on most convertibles.
The Beetle is considered a safe car. It earned top scores in the federal government's crash tests and comes with Volkswagen's excellent safety features. Just don't expect to see people looking, smiling and waving at you every time you come around a corner as much as they did when the New Beetle first hit the streets. After all, the Beetle is once again a familiar face in America.
The Volkswagen New Beetle is fun to drive. It feels tight. Handling and brakes are excellent. Acceleration performance varies from lethargic to brisk, depending on the engine.
It rides well on bumpy pavement, smoother than a Mini Cooper and more refined than a PT Cruiser. The Beetle feels stable at high speeds and in high-speed sweeping turns. It leans in corners when driven hard, but its tires and suspension give it good grip and keep the chassis firmly in contact with the road. The steering is quick and accurate. Handling among the different Beetle models is quite similar in character as the suspension is tuned to provide the same driving characteristics.
Beetle is smooth and stable under hard braking. It can stop in a shorter distance than a PT Cruiser, according to published reports, but it doesn't stop as quickly as the Golf or Mini.
The 2.0-liter engine that comes on GL and GLS models is smooth, quiet, and refined. It delivers good, usable power when putting around town at low rpm. That means you don't have to do a lot of shifting. Put it in second or third gear and leave it there as you work your way around town and on rural roads. It's quite pleasant at 20 mph in third. You can even take off from a stop sign in second gear without lurching. It cruises well at high speeds. Torque from the 2.0-liter engine comes at relatively low revs and makes the car feel sprightly. It wouldn't be our first choice for drag racing, though. Developing just 115 horsepower, the 2.0-liter Beetle is among the slowest cars sold today. It takes about 10.2 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, according to Volkswagen. That's lethargic performance by anyone's stopwatch. Convertibles are even slower due to their added weight (0 to 60 in 11.4). It's clean performance, though, qualifying for as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) in all 50 states.
We prefer the manual gearbox, which shifts smoothly and adds enjoyment to driving the Beetle. However, the six-speed automatic with Porsche's Tiptronic system offers performance that's nearly as quick as a manual gearbox (0 to 60 mph in 11.8 seconds). It also allows semi-manual shifting.
Volkswagen builds some of the best small diesel engines in the world. The new 1.9 TDI-PD is rated at only 100 horsepower, but its 177 pound-feet of torque compares favorably with the 173 pound-feet of the defunct hot-rod Turbo S. Plus it can be ordered with the terrific DSG gearbox with Tiptronic, which makes the most out of the diesel engine's power. The new diesel is rated 46 mpg on the highway, compared to 44 for last year's 90-horsepower diesel, and 31 for the 2.0-liter gas engine. In our past experiences with VW diesels they have run brilliantly, on long trips and in everyday driving. They have none of the clatter of an old Mercedes-Benz diesel, but just a slightly rough texture that some people like because they say it reminds them a bit of the original Bug.
Driving enthusiasts will prefer the 1.8 T turbocharged gasoline engine. It lacks response at the bottom of the rpm range, but provides good acceleration performance once the revs are up. Step on the gas and the car begins to build momentum, then there's a whoosh of power. The GLS 1.8 T can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.2 seconds. We strongly recommend the manual gearbox with this engine. We have not been happy when pairing the 1.8 T with an automatic because the turbo seems to confuse the transmission causing a distinct lack of response in certain situations; this often happens when you most need a squirt of power, such as when jumping out of a slow, bumper-to-bumper lane into a fast lane.
The Volkswagen Beetle feels tight and responsive. Its ride is smooth and sporty. Handling and braking are excellent. The standard 2.0-liter engine is smooth and quiet, fine for most people, but driving enthusiasts will find its acceleration performance lacking. The GLS 1.8 T is fun to drive. Its mild manners make for a pleasant ride around town, while its acceleration performance gives it sports appeal.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Southern California.