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By the time I took my driver's license test in my parents' 1961 Volkswagen Beetle, the model had already become iconic in movies such as "What's Up, Doc?" and "Foul Play." The little round German car stood up to America's big car bias with good-natured panache, making it a plucky underdog. Given my connection to this historic model, I was pleased to test the latest, and fastest, model, the 2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line.
I found plenty of differences in this 2014 Beetle compared with my parents' Bug. Under the hood was an engine instead of a gas tank and cargo space. The rear of the current Beetle opens as a hatchback, with 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space, while the older one had its engine back there. The driven wheels followed the engine placement, moving from rear to front.
Of course, these changes were covered profusely when Volkswagen launched what it called the New Beetle in 1997. The 2014 Beetle is based on the same generation that launched in 2011, styled with a flatter roof for a more aggressive appeal than the New Beetle. To be honest, I'm not crazy about retro-styling in cars, but my early associations with the Beetle model overrode those misgivings.
Even though the car I learned to drive in is long gone, I was still a little surprised to be lifting up the rear hatch in this 2014 Beetle. It was a far cry from turning a chrome handle to lift the engine cover, which inevitably meant gapping spark plugs, priming the carb, or sometimes replacing the entire engine. More familiar was the coupe body, as the 2014 Beetle retains the two-door format, making rear-seat passengers crawl through the space between front seat and B-pillar.
Barbra Streisand, with passenger Ryan O'Neal, leads a car chase through San Francisco driving a blue 1972 Volkswagen Beetle in the 1972 film "What's Up, Doc?"
New for the 2014 model year, the R-Line is far more than a simple appearance package. Yes, the Beetle R-Line gets 19-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers, and a wide spoiler hanging off the back. But Volkswagen also gives it a new engine, the same 2-liter four-cylinder with direct injection and a turbocharger powering the previous generation of the GTI. That engine, good for 210 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, was one of the best from the last decade and remains a strong contender.
The Beetle R-Line starts at a price of $24,995, $4,700 more than the base trim Beetle. UK buyers won't find an R-Line on the dealer lot, but will get the same drivetrain and transmission options in the Beetle Sport and Beetle Turbo, not to mention better cabin electronics, with base prices starting at £20,085. Australian Beetle fans don't get an R-Line either, or the 2-liter engine, and have to make do with the 158 horsepower from a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine.
The example I drove for this review came with a six-speed manual in lieu of the available six-speed automated manual, which Volkswagen calls DSG.
With the engine and transmission choices, you might think the Beetle R-Line is a GTI with a weird body. My first clue the Beetle R-Line would fall short of its sibling's performance was the lack of an ESP button anywhere in the cabin. In GTIs equipped with the DSG, pushing this button turns off traction control and enables a launch control feature. The Beetle R-Line does not have this capability.
Two soldiers attempt to sink a Volkswagen Beetle in the 1969 World War II film "Castle Keep," but are stymied when the car floats.
Digging into the Beetle specs, the R-Line comes with a slightly thicker front sway bar than other trim levels, and bigger front brake rotors. However, I didn't find that the suspension tuning equaled the engine. Getting into the sport driver seat, pressing the engine start button, and putting it in gear, I felt the spongy suspension on my first drive down the block. It seemed as if Volkswagen wanted to make an aggressive version of the Beetle, but refrained from taking it too far. Somewhere in the development cycle someone decided that Beetle buyers would prefer comfort over a stiff and sporty ride.
To test the handling, I took the Beetle R-Line on a trip down memory lane. However, my memory lane was called Pierce Road, a narrow strip of blacktop running up a canyon over which I had many youthful adventures in that '61 Beetle. The road, now lined with million-dollar mansions, had become too built-up for serious shenanigans, but the Beetle R-Line was much less likely to end up in a ditch than its 55-year old grandfather.
My real testing occurred on a different, uninhabited, twisty mountain road, complete with climbing switchbacks and hairpin turns. The six-speed shifted with characteristic European smoothness and just a little mechanical notchiness when I slotted it into each gear. Although equipped with electric power steering, good heft and increasing resistance around the column gave it a natural feel.
Diving into those tight turns, feeling the load shift and looking for the optimal point to put the power down, the spongy suspension gave the Beetle R-Line a floaty feeling, which didn't inspire confidence. However, I continued to press the car, noting how it wasn't suffering from excessive wallow or understeer. It leaned out a bit and I got the tires singing, but it never felt in danger of wholly losing traction. The engine's 210 horsepower proved to be just about right for the Beetle R-Line, as I could floor it in second gear on an ascent without feeling like I was going to overshoot the next turn and drop 100 feet to the valley below.
Although not as hardcore as a GTI, the Beetle R-Line was a comfortable and easy driving car for the city and highway, where I spent the majority of my time. A hill-hold feature kept me from rolling back during starts on San Francisco's steep streets. Volkswagen thoughtfully retained a lever-style e-brake, so I could also use that for hill starts. I was more impressed by the fact the Beetle R-Line was balanced enough not to chirp the front tires at each start, unless I really wanted to make an impression.
Diane Keaton takes Woody Allen on a wild ride around Manhattan in a 1973 Super Beetle convertible in the 1977 film "Annie Hall."
Freeway cruising was particularly easy and comfortable in the Beetle R-Line, while shifting was so smooth that the manual transmission did not become irksome in stop-and-go traffic. That soft suspension helped ride comfort considerably, although at low speeds in the city I noticed a recurring thump noise emanating from the 19-inch wheels.