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2014 Volkswagen Beetle review: VW revs up Beetle with R-Line trim, but it's no GTI

The Beetle R-Line gets the same engine and transmission choices as the 2014 GTI, but suspension tuning keeps this icon back from being a real hot hatch.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
9 min read

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.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle

2014 Volkswagen Beetle

The Good

A 2-liter turbocharged engine gives the 2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line a nice combination of power and efficiency, while its unique body style evokes a cultural icon. The Fender audio system delivers excellent sound quality.

The Bad

The soft suspension falls short when it comes to canyon carving, and the RNS 315 navigation system is an option box better left unchecked.

The Bottom Line

Although not as sporty as its GTI sibling, the iconic 2014 Volkswagen Beetle comes through with good power and an enjoyable driving experience, but navigation isn't worth the option price.

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.

The iconic Volkswagen Beetle powers up for 2014 (pictures)

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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.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle
The California coast makes a perfect setting for the iconic Volkswagen Beetle. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

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.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen preserves the Beetle's coupe body style from the original generation, but adds a hatchback. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

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.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle
A hatchback gives the Beetle added utility, with fold-down rear seats to maximize cargo capacity. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The six-speed manual, with overdrive in the top three gears, let the engine hum along at around 2,000rpm when running at freeway speeds, contributing to the car's rated 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Putting the Beetle R-Line through its paces, which included the many traffic lights of San Francisco and tearing up the mountain roads, I still managed a reasonable 26.4 mpg average.

Goldie Hawn drives a yellow 1973 Super Beetle convertible up California's Highway 1 in the 1978 film "Foul Play."

Instead of the simple AM radio in that '61 Beetle, the Beetle R-Line sported a touchscreen navigation system, part of the Sun, Sound, and Nav package included in this example. To my eyes, however, the bigger improvement was the inclusion of a fuel gauge, something lacking in the '61.

I was less impressed with the cabin materials in the Beetle R-Line, which consisted of hard plastics over the dashboard and a deplorable gloss-black plastic strip running along the side window sills. Keeping up the performance theme, a pod rising from the center dashboard included three gauges: oil temperature, lap timer, and turbo boost. The lap timer seemed a bit funny to me, as I found it hard to imagine taking the Beetle R-Line to track days and running with GTIs and M3s.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle
The RNS 315 head unit combines Bluetooth handsfree phone, navigation, and stereo systems. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Volkswagen designates the navigation system included in the Beetle R-Line as RNS 315, a unit from the company I have tested before and found very lacking in features. The screen resolution is decent, and it shows its flash-memory-stored maps in perspective and plan views. However, the maps look tiny on the 5-inch display and the system does not offer live traffic. More points for the plus column, I found the system to be quick and responsive, and its route guidance was decent.

With Volkswagen's Car-Net telematics service, owners can look up destinations on their PCs, then upload them to the Beetle R-Line's navigation system, a welcome feature. However, the navigation system itself only offers a static points-of-interest database, and lacks its own online destination search.

I like the interface for this system, which uses a semicircle of icons for each menu, accessible with the touchscreen or the center dial. Voice command is a bit lacking, however, offering phone system controls and little else.

Kevin Bacon cranks the stereo in a 1972 Beetle to kick off his seminal dance number in the 1984 film "Footloose."

The real high-point for me of the Beetle R-Line's electronics was the Fender audio system, which consists of a 400-watt amp and nine speakers. I've heard this system in other Volkswagen models, and it always impressed me with its sound quality. Leaving the equalizer controls flat, I found the midrange frequencies a little too prominent. Adjusting the mids down, the bass up, and leaving treble at zero, the system delivered the goods for the rock and electronic music I fed it. Bass came through with palpable oomph but did not overwhelm the car or rattle panels, while treble reached strong highs.

Another welcome sight in the Beetle R-Line was the Lightning adapter cable in the lower glove box, letting me plug in an iPhone 5. I would still like to see Volkswagen adopt a simple USB port rather than using its proprietary media connector, but at least I didn't have to bring in an extra adapter. With my phone plugged into the car, I could browse its music library using the car's tiny touchscreen. The car's Bluetooth streaming implementation was not nearly as slick, merely showing artist and song name, but lacking album art or music selection capabilities.

Even though fully loaded, the Beetle R-Line did not come with any driver-assistance features, such as a backup camera.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle
Along with eight speakers, the Fender audio system includes this 20-cm (7.8-inch) subwoofer in the Beetle. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The 2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line falls into the generation of Beetle launched in 2011, and Volkswagen is not likely to give it a significant update until the end of this decade. Meanwhile, many other Volkswagen models will be moving to its new MQB platform and benefiting from new engines. The Beetle will have to survive on its looks, the one thing that really makes it stand out from the stampede of compact cars on the market.

A 1963 Volkswagen Beetle appears as Herbie the Love Bug in six films and a television series.

In R-Line trim, Volkswagen gives the Beetle a good deal of power which can make for a lot of fun, along with the option for the quick-shifting six-speed DSG. However, those seeking a hot hatch would be better served by the GTI, and its more sporty suspension. Despite the hot engine in the Beetle R-Line, fuel economy makes for a good daily driver.

The electronics package includes some high points, such as the Fender audio system, and it's nice to see that Volkswagen now includes an adapter for newer iOS devices. The navigation system is the weakest link, offering a tiny screen and no traffic data. Fortunately, Volkswagen offers the Sun and Sound package for about $2,500 less than the Sun, Sound, and Nav package, getting you the Fender audio system and ditching the navigation system.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Volkswagen Beetle
Trim R-Line
Powertrain Turbocharged direct injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission
EPA fuel economy 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 26.4 mpg
Navigation Optional
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Fender 400-watt nine-speaker system
Driver aids None
Base price $20,295
Price as tested $31,115
2014 Volkswagen Beetle

2014 Volkswagen Beetle

Score Breakdown

Performance 7Features 5Design 8Media 4