I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed when, near the end of my week with the Mustang Boss 302 (arguably the manliest car to pass though the Car Tech garage this year), I learned that the next car I'd be testing would the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle. I mean, the first generation of the New Beetle was a car best known for its dashboard-mounted flower vase. "What," I asked myself, "have I gotten myself into?"
Fortunately, my fears were allayed when the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo rolled into the Car Tech garage (the "New" prefix has been dropped for this second generation) sporting massive 18-inch wheels, an eye-catching Tornado Red paint job, and new, more aggressive styling that looks better in person than it does in photos. Beneath the hood, I was happy to find a rev-happy 200-horsepower, turbocharged engine connected to a performance-oriented DSG gearbox. The icing on the cake was VW's Fender-branded premium audio system, which already wowed us in the Volkswagen Passat.
Could it be that the Volkswagen Beetle is cool again? I pressed the keyless start button and hit the open road to find out.
The Beetle's got boost
It's quite easy to think of the VW Beetle 2.0T as a flamboyant VW GTI. After all, the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is the same as the GTI's, as is the six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. The 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque output are also unchanged. Fuel economy isn't dramatically different, although the Beetle's 21 city mpg and 30 highway mpg are slightly lower than the GTI's. We managed 19.8 mpg over our combined testing cycle that heavily favored city driving, but as you'll soon learn that's because having fun in the Beetle requires a heavy right foot.
The 200-horsepower engine offers good acceleration, but only after the turbo spins up.
The Beetle also features the Cross Differential System (XDS) that is present in the GTI. XDS attempts to replicate the functionality of a limited-slip differential by augmenting a standard open differential with the antilock brake system. Essentially, the system applies the brakes to the inside front wheel when accelerating and turning to eliminate wheel spin and power loss to the outside front wheel, which should actually have the most grip while cornering. The Volkswagen GTI also uses this system, as does the newest Ford Focus. While this brake-based traction solution essentially behaves like a proper limited-slip differential, it does have its tradeoffs. For example, there is potential for increased brake pad wear over the life of the vehicle and you can sometimes hear (and, if you're paying attention, feel) the XDS system engaging when pushing the Beetle hard into a corner.
However, as similar as the Beetle and GTI are, there are differences that the performance enthusiast will notice. For example, the Beetle lacks a traction control disabling button, so stoplight drag races won't be able to take advantage of the launch control program present on the DSG-equipped GTI. Additionally, the Beetle Turbo's suspension, while sportily sprung, isn't has hard-edged as the GTI's.
Enough with the comparisons to VW's original hot hatch. How does the Beetle handle on the road? As it turns out, not too badly.
Off-the-line performance is hindered by noticeable amounts of turbo lag. Gassing the accelerator from a stop results in abysmal acceleration for the first few feet, but then (at just below the 1,700rpm torque peak) the turbo springs to life and the Beetle shoots forward with a sudden burst of power. Coincidentally, this burst of power usually came just at the point when I'd begun to further depress the gas pedal in frustration, suddenly resulting in more speed than the situation required. Over the week, I began to learn to time the off-the-line lag, but the first day was filled with screeching the tires away from every other light and generally feeling like a bit of a tool.
Fortunately, once you get the Beetle's turbo spinning, power is much easier to modulate and comes in controllable and accessible gobs. The torque curve is surprisingly flat, resulting in zippy performance around town without the need for much shifting. Not that shifting was an issue with the DSG's manual mode putting lightning-quick gear changes at my fingertips via the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The gearbox also features two automatic shift programs: normal and sport. Normal places an emphasis on fuel economy, but rushes through the gear changes so quickly that the turbo lag I've already complained about can be a problem at speed. Sport allows the gearbox to hold gears higher into the rev-range for better performance and was the mode I defaulted to when I didn't want to futz with the paddles.
Drivers can shift their own gears or let the 6-speed DSG automatic transmission do the shifting for them.
Interestingly, even in the manual shift mode, the VW will automatically downshift for you if the accelerator is completely depressed and then reset to your previously chosen gear upon lifting. Likewise, it will not allow you to select a gear that would result in over-revving or bogging the engine.
When cornering, the 2012 Beetle Turbo remains planted with plenty of grip on tap. It doesn't feel as point-and-shoot as the GTI, but I think that the casual enthusiast would be happy the way the Beetle goes 'round a bend--it certainly supplied me with more than a few grins during a cruise down my favorite stretch of coastal highway. Push harder than is advisable on public roads and the Beetle reacts first with body roll, then with gradual, progressive understeer before the standard stability control and XDS system step in to save your bacon.
However, pushing the car and shaving seconds off of a lap time is hardly the point of the 2012 Beetle Turbo. It's a zippy around-towner and a darned fun country cruiser.
Der neue stil (The new style)
It would be impossible to discuss the Beetle without commenting on styling. The broad strokes have remained in place and this 2012 revision is still instantly recognizable as a VW Bug. However, the details have all been tweaked. Externally, the Beetle features a more hunkered-down look that is emphasized by a roof and hood that have been flattened from the overly circular profile of the previous New Beetle. The flatter roofline also has the benefit of increasing rear-seat headroom.
The Turbo model's styling is augmented by a rather large, yet attractive rear spoiler that kicks up from below the rear window and chrome-finished side skirts that protrude slightly, reinforcing the low and wide visual styling. Large, 18-inch Twister alloy wheels fill the bulbous front and rear fenders and a subtle chrome "Turbo" badge adorns the rear hatch. The Turbo's styling additions create a slightly more masculine aesthetic than the previous Beetle, which was almost universally thought of as a "chick car."
Inside, the Beetle has also been tweaked. Gone are the floating infotainment pod and oddball flower vase that was integrated into the dashboard of the previous generation. They have been replaced with a center stack that flows gracefully into the console and a more upright dashboard. Fit and finish are top-notch, although one picky passenger complained about the lack of soft-touch plastics on the dashboard. Personally, I didn't mind.
I should note that the initial batch of launch models of the Beetle Turbo lack the trio of auxiliary gauges pictured in VW's promotional pictures, giving oil temperature, a stopwatch function, and boost pressure readouts. In their place, our tester featured a recessed, rubber-lined storage area with space for two full handfuls of ketchup packets.
However, the 2012 Beetle's interior isn't all serious business. Accent lighting that surrounds the door speakers and trim can be set to glow red, white, or blue. The dashboard's plastic finish is available with paint that matches the exterior of the vehicle in color. Our tester was not thusly equipped, the finish having instead a carbon fiber look that didn't annoy me as much as I thought it would.
I was, however, annoyed by the secondary Kaeferfach glove box integrated into the upper dashboard--which is too small for anything but, perhaps, an actual a pair of gloves. Likewise, I found myself raging at the center armrest, which was always in the way, and its integrated storage bin, which was also pretty much useless for actually storing things. Fortunately the main glove box is reasonably spacious.
We don't know what VW expects us to fit in here, but it can't be very large!
That main glove box is where you'll find the MDI digital audio connection with swappable pigtails for connecting USB portable storage devices or iPod/iPhone devices with a 30-pin dock connector. iPhone owners may not appreciate having to reach to the far end of the dashboard to hide the phone away before every trip. However, iPhones, as well as BlackBerry and Android devices, can be connected to the Beetle's premium audio system via Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free calling. I was pleased to see that the Beetle's audio system displays artist and song title metadata when streaming audio from a device that supports this function.
The optional Fender audio system is easily one of the best in its class and a must-have for 2012 Beetle buyers.
Speaking of premium audio, our test Beetle came equipped with the optional Fender stereo system, which is branded after and developed with the guitar and amplifier manufacturer. It is rare that a stereo in a nonpremium car earns the right to call itself a "premium audio system," but this Fender system does just that. I can honestly not think of anything negative to say about this car audio rig. The system's eight speakers plus a discrete subwoofer tucked in the rear storage area are darn near unflappable, outputting almost no distortion or rattles at reasonable volumes (and probably beyond). More impressive was the Fender's system's ability to bring out the best of almost any genre. Whether it was the unique vocals of an indie starlet, the pumping bass and stuttering synths of electronica, or the heavy bass and staccato bark of hip-hop, the Fender audio system sounded fantastic without needing constant tweaking of sound stage modes or EQ levels.
With the premium audio, the Beetle also features a color touch screen for navigating the various audio sources, which include the aforementioned Bluetooth and USB connections, as well as AM/FM radio, a single-slot CD player, and satellite radio.
You can also upgrade to a hard-drive-based RN 315 GPS system with snappy performance and well-rendered maps. However, the Beetle's navigation options do not include traffic data and I found that the points-of-interest database was missing a number of popular San Francisco restaurants. I was pleased to see that VW doesn't lock drivers out of selecting a destination while in motion, so I didn't need to pull over to find the nearest gas station.
If you're looking at a 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, you should seriously consider the Turbo model for $23,395. (Let's face it, the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine didn't exactly win us over with its power and efficiency in the 2011 VW Jetta, so we don't expect it to suddenly be spectacular in the Beetle 2.5.) Next, you'll have to make a decision on the gearbox. The six-speed DSG automatic adds $1,100 to the bottom line and is a solid choice both for drivers too lazy to row their own gears and for those looking for sharper, faster shifts.
With the power train sorted, you'll want to decide on your car tech. The $3,000 Sunroof and Sound package adds the Fender audio system and a power sunroof. Trust me, you definitely want that. For $1,600 more, you could have the Sunroof, Sound, and Navigation package that adds the RN 315 navigation system, leather seating surfaces, and car-body-colored dashboard panels. I'm not enamored of the sophistication of VW's navigation system or the prospect of a colorful interior; you could just use your Bluetooth-paired smartphone to navigate.
If you do decide to add Navigation, that will bring you to the same as-tested MSRP of $29,865 (including a $770 destination charge) that our Tornado Red Beetle Turbo arrived carrying.
Is the Volkswagen Beetle cool again? I think so.
Before you sign for your Bug, you'll likely want to test-drive a few other models. However, if you're the kind of driver who looks at the 2012 Beetle 2.0T and thinks, "That's a good-looking ride," you'll find that there are few cars on the market that can match its odd blend of style and performance. If you don't mind driving the same car as the kid from Twilight, the Volvo C30 may be a good alternative, but Volvo's packaging structure makes it easy to end up spending a lot more money to get the options you want. The Mini Cooper S Clubman will also appeal to fans of Euro-retro styling and zippy performance, but it is also a smaller vehicle and more expensive than the similarly equipped Beetle.
Actually, one of the closest competitors to the Beetle is Volkswagen's own 2011 GTI two-door hatchback. It's about the same size, offers similar passenger and storage volumes, and is more conservatively styled for those who aren't fans of the Beetle's bulbous aesthetic. Fully loaded, the GTI offers better performance and fuel economy, but lacks the Beetle's Fender premium audio system. Whether you value speed or sound more will be the determining factor in which of these VWs comes out on top.
|Model||2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo|
|Trim||Sunroof, Sound, and Navigation package|
|Power train||2-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, FWD, 6-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||21 city, 30 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||19.8 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||yes|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, MDI with USB and iPod connectors|
|Other digital audio||satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Audio system||Fender-branded premium audio, 8 speakers plus subwoofer|
|Price as tested||$29,865|