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 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.
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."