2012 Volkswagen Beetle, an CarAndBike Flash Drive Car Review

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By GREG KABLE on 7/12/2011

What is it?

This is the all-new 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, as first revealed in simultaneous presentations at the New York and Shanghai motor shows in April. It goes on sale in September in the U.S. market. Pricing is yet to be announced, but expect a moderate increase to accompany increased levels of standard equipment.

Gone is the New Beetle name. Now it’s just the Beetle–as it probably should have been when Volkswagen finally got around to replacing the original after a production run of 21.5 million back in 1997. Gone, too, is the traditional flower vase perched atop the dashboard–a victim, it seems, of Volkswagen’s efforts to provide the latest iteration of the Beetle with a more aggressive air.

With a bolder exterior design, larger dimensions, an extensively reworked interior, greater space, more contemporary underpinnings and a range of more powerful engines–including a turbocharged, 200-hp four-cylinder displacing 2.0 liters, Volkswagen hopes to attract a greater number of male buyers.

As expected, the Beetle sits on a more contemporary front-wheel-drive platform than the 14-year-old-model it replaces. In a move aimed at broadening appeal, Volkswagen also gave the new Beetle a wider range of engines than those offered on its direct predecessor.

The engine lineup will be the 2.5-liter five cylinder making 170 hp, the 2.0-liter diesel (140 hp, available in 2012) and the 2.0-liter four-banger (200 hp). Other variants will be offered around the world.

From an exterior-design standpoint, the Beetle impresses. From the very first glance, you’re aware that more time and thought has gone into perfecting its appearance than with its predecessor. There is a maturity to the exterior styling that was lacking with the old Beetle, which came across as being almost cartoonlike from certain angles and which was always considered an odd pastiche of the original 1938 model.

Added length and reduced height serve to stretch the new car visually while the finer details–such as the beveled edge running around the glasshouse and the newly shaped headlamps–are beautifully integrated into the overall design. A flatter roof and elongated glasshouse also give the car more of a coupelike silhouette.

Volkswagen’s not saying it officially, but insiders reveal the goal during the design phase was to create an alternative to the Audi TT coupe, both in terms of appearance and dynamics.

What is it like to drive?

Step inside, and you’re confronted by an unusually high dashboard styled to replicate that of the original Beetle–complete with an old-fashion glovebox compartment. There are some excellent features inside, not least of which are the unique instruments and a high-quality steering wheel.

Owing to the elevated dashboard and high waistline, you get the feeling that you sit quite low. But it is an illusion; the actual seat height is roughly the same as that of the Jetta, according to Volkswagen development boss Ulrich Hackenberg. The pedals on left-hand-drive versions are also offset toward the right, with the upshot that your right leg is continuously leaning against the outer wall of center console.

We drove the turbocharged model–the only one Volkswagen brought to the new Beetle’s launch in Berlin this week–equipped with an optional six-speed DSG (dual shift) gearbox. It’s essentially the same driveline used by the GTI.

The Beetle is quick off the line and satisfyingly flexible across a wide range of revs. The engine is eager in nature, spinning to its 7,000-rpm redline smoothly, determinedly and without any undue harshness up high. However, it fails to get its power down cleanly. Despite the inclusion of unequal-length driveshafts, an electronic differential lock (the same unit used in the GTI) and electronic stability control as standard, it is prone to wheelspin and can suffer the odd pang of torque steer when you step onto the throttle out of slower corners.

Ride quality is not up to Volkswagen’s usual high standards, either. Even when running the standard spring-and-damper package, the Beetle fails to deliver the overall composure of the Golf over a wide range of surfaces. The steering, a new electromechanical arrangement, also lacks precision off-center. The weighting is fine, but there is a small degree of slack as you turn off-center that is not evident in the Golf.

The new Beetle does, however, hang on well in corners. Grip is vastly improved over the old model, a result that can be attributed not only to the widened tracks but to a decision to provide the new model with larger wheels and tires boasting a larger contact area. The lower height also serves to reduce the center of gravity.

There’s a fair bit of roll when you push on, but the body movements are progressive and never really impede progress. In this respect, Volkswagen’s claims of added sportiness are warranted, although there are many hatchbacks that will provide a more engaging driving experience.

Do I want one?

Like its direct predecessor, the new Beetle will be bought more on the statement made by throwback styling than any other single factor. Seen up close, it is a much more confident-looking car than before, something that is not only a reflection of the exterior design but the more surefooted stance brought on by its wider tracks. It also imparts a higher quality feel, even if some of its interior trims look inexpensive.

But whether looks and a feeling of added quality are enough to draw in greater number of male buyers, as Volkswagen claims it will, remains to be seen. Dynamically, it is a vast improvement on the old Beetle. But if first impressions are anything to go by, it continues to lack the polish of the Golf, which in pure driving terms is superior in many ways.

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