Review: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

My wife doesn’t know a lot about cars, but she does humor me from time to time when I excitedly share car industry news with her.  “Hey, remember the A7 that I tested last summer?  They’re going to have an S8 that has the same gorgeous body, but a twin-turbo V8 under the hood.  Sweet, right?” “If that makes you happy, then I guess that’s good, dear.”  Yet I often find her perspective to be valuable as a second opinion or a gut check when I am evaluating a car.  She has very different priorities and a very different perspective on vehicles than I do.  I love to drive; she tolerates it.  I love performance; she loves fuel economy.  I told her that Volkswagen is trying to pitch its 2012 Beetle as more masculine; she said “it’s cute.”

Millions of dollars in market research, engineering, design, all thrown out the window.  It’s still a “chick car.”

Actually, the new-for-2012 Beetle is little more than a Golf wrapped in a different package.  A very different package.  And funny enough, the car’s new shape is closer to the original rear-engine, air-cooled Beetle than was the 1990s-vintage cab forward design penned by J Mays.  The exaggerated curves of the New Beetle have been replaced by a more upright windshield, much-longer hood, and an interior design that is more derivative of the original than a caricature of it.  Simply, it’s less cute, but it’s still a cute car.

Now, if you have a Beetle Turbo (which our test car was not) and paint it in Porsche 911 GT3 RS livery with orange wheels (which ours was not), then it’s not exactly cute.  But with its retro-styled wheel covers (albeit not the standard “heritage wheels” that look strikingly similar to the original Beetle’s small dog dish hubcaps), long hood (which was of course a trunk in the original Beetle), and distinctive shape, it’s impossible to mistake the Beetle for anything but what it is.  It’s very difficult to distinguish between a Passat and Jetta unless you have a trained eye, but the Beetle is another story entirely.  The shape of the new model has grown on me since I first saw its silhouette on screen caps from the Oprah Winfrey Show years ago (you didn’t think I’d actually admit to watching Oprah, did you?).

So the Beetle has a bit of a hill to climb in its quest to gain respect, and more importantly buyers, who may be put off by its “chick car” reputation.  Make no mistake: there are concessions to form over function throughout the Beetle that, say, a Golf would not have, despite the very close engineering relationship that the two cars share.  These include obvious things such as less maximum cargo volume (with rear seats folded); the Beetle has 29.9 cubic feet while the Golf boasts 46.0 cubic feet.  Rear shoulder room and rear legroom also more generous in the Golf vs. the Beetle by a few inches, though other dimensions are reasonably close.

We’ve seen in the Jetta and Passat that Volkswagen’s mainstream vehicle interiors do not really set any design benchmarks, with simple-yet-functional shapes and controls, but they tend to have better perceived quality than many of their competitors do (lower-spec Jettas being the exception).  The Beetle, though it looks cool and as if it’s truly a direct descendant of the original Beetle, has much more hard plastic throughout.  The use of body-color plastic (red in our tester’s case) excuses some of the hard polymers, but the charcoal gray surrounding them is also hard to the touch.  At least the pieces seemed to fit together well, but you’ll be bruised if you bump an elbow against the door panel a bit too vigorously.  The center armrest is too short and too narrow to be comfortable, but at least you have room for your drink and the ability to really bang those gearchanges in your automatic Beetle.

Controls were something of a mixed bag.  There is a simple three-knob climate control setup, which works very simply, but doesn’t exactly set new benchmarks in terms of refinement in their operation.  Yet other controls such as turn signals, buttons on the steering wheel, and radio buttons have a soft, high-quality feel to them.  Though the radio buttons and knobs are fine, the interface is infuriating.  The problem lies in the steadfast adherence to a circle motif when browsing through either the full stations list (in satellite radio) or the presets. If you’re on the presets page, you can’t twist the tuning dial to change to a non-preset station.  You can’t access your presets via hardware buttons if you’re in the full list of stations.  Setting presets is ludicrous; you have to browse the list of categories, choose the station that you want, identify which preset number it will go into, then confirm that you wish to set the preset.  I hate to stereotype, but could there possibly be a more German radio design than this one? (I would not be surprised to learn that it was actually made in China, but surely it’s German-influenced).  The radio sounded all right – nothing spectacular – and the navigation system was slightly handicapped by the head unit’s small screen.

Apparently VW’s 2.5 liter inline-five, as installed in base Beetles, is not long for this world; it will be replaced by a small forced-induction four cylinder.  Despite its reputation as having the power and refinement of a four cylinder with the fuel economy of a six cylinder, the I5 isn’t an awful engine.  It is a bit thirsty given its relatively small displacement and the Beetle’s relatively light weight (2,983 pounds), with EPA rating of 22 MPG city/29 MPG highway.  For 2013, VW is offering a diesel option for the Beetle; the Beetle TDI will be rated at an estimated 32/41, or about 8 or 9 MPG better than the Beetle 2.5 liter.  The 2.5/auto combination is the thirstiest Beetle; you get a 22/31 rating for the 2.5/manual, 22/30 for the 2.0T/auto, and 21/30 for the 2.0T/manual.  The 2.5 liter has decent low-end torque and actually does sound a bit more like a six cylinder and a bit less like half of a V10, but it soon runs out of breath, just at the speed a turbo would be coming into its peak power output.

Bestowed with a solid body structure, handling is sure-footed.  It has struts up front and a torsion-beam axle in the rear.  Ride quality isn’t exactly top-of-the-class, but that’s OK by me.  Note that the more-expensive Turbo Beetle gets a sophisticated multilink rear suspension, which would theoretically keep the car more planted on rough surfaces and allow individual wheels to respond to road imperfections, rather than taking their tag-team partner along with them as the solid axle has to do.  Four-wheel disc brakes handle the stopping duties, and boast a characteristic German firm feel.

The seats in our tester were made of vinyl, but rather than pretending to be leather like most vinyl seats do these days, they pretended to be carbon fiber – or at least their outer edges did.  I wasn’t particularly fond of this treatment, but I would imagine that on hotter days, this particular vinyl would be a little less skin-scorching than the more typical leather-imitating vinyl in the actual seating surfaces.  In the photo of the rear seat above, you’ll note the classic B-pillar-mounted grab hoops that hearken to the original Beetle.

Pricing starts at $20,565 for a base 2.5 liter manual-transmission car.  The 2.5L with sunroof goes for $23,065, and the 2.5L with sunroof, sound, and navigation goes for $24,865.  Add another $1,100 for the automatic, and my tester’s out-the-door MSRP was a not-exactly-cheap $25,965.  That’s about $1,000 more than a comparable Golf, according to our friends at TrueDelta.com.

Is the car worth it?  Sorry, I still don’t buy the “oh, it’s more masculine now” argument put forth by Volkswagen.  It is less cute, but still far more cute than tough-looking or cool-looking, at least from my point of view.  There’s definitely a price premium for the Beetle, and indeed for all Volkswagen products.  A Civic EX-L, for instance, is some $2,375 cheaper when accounting for equipment differences (per TrueDelta), and would probably be more reliable in the long run.  If you like the Beetle’s new style, and you want something a little different, it’s still a nicely-driving car that breaks the mold of many new cars today, while nearly reinstating the mold of the beloved original VW Beetle.

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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