Volkswagen has been selling its iconic Beetle model seemingly forever, but the 2012 version tops them all.
The new third-generation Beetle won’t be mistaken for any other car because it retains the familiar shape of all Beetles ever built. But it’s larger and sleeker — or “longer, lower and wider” as Detroit’s automakers used to say.
The new model also is more powerful and faster than the last model, which caused quite a stir when it arrived in 1998 as the second-generation “New Beetle.”
The original, first-generation Beetle arrived in America around 1950 and underwent numerous small changes over the years. It was the country’s most popular foreign car during the 1950s and 1960s despite its basic 1930s design. It reliable, economical and solidly built. In fact, the then-new, far costlier early 1950s Porsches used modified Volkswagen components.
The popular Volkswagen got its “Beetle” nickname because of its distinctive shape, which inspired nicknames around the world: Beetle, Kafer, Vocho, Coccinelle, Fusco and Maggiolino. Some 21.5 million were sold, making it the most popular car ever built off a single platform. More modern Japanese cars began eating into its market, beginning in the early 1970s.
The “New Beetle” — the second-generation model — arrived in 1998 and was a solid hit. It seemed almost everyone had owned a new or used first-generation Beetle, or knew someone who did, and fondly remembered it.
Which brings us to the third-generation front-wheel-drive model, which was unveiled at a media preview at VW headquarters in Herndon, Va.
The new car is 3.3 inches wider at 71.2 inches, which means two occupants sitting alongside each other won’t be rubbing shoulders as in previous Beetles. It’s also 58.5 inches tall, which makes it a half-inch lower. It’s 6 inches longer at 168.4 inches, and Volkswagen also increased the car’s track widths and wheelbase.
The car’s hood is longer and the windshield is shifted further back and has a steep incline. The roof also has a distinctly lower profile.
The car weighs from 2,939 to 3,089 pounds. It’s decently equipped with comfort, convenience and safety features.
There are four trim levels for the basic 2.5-liter model and three with the Turbo version.
Prices range from $18,995 for the base 2.5 model with a manual transmission, or $20,895 with an automatic, to $23,395 for the more powerful Turbo model with a manual and $24,495 with an advanced DSG automatic.
The latest Beetle looks more dynamic and masculine. Many New Beetles were bought by women, and Volkswagen wants the car’s more masculine look and added performance to appeal more strongly to males — without alienating female buyers. In fact, the Beetle Turbo model has a rather prominent male-oriented rear spoiler nicely integrated into the design.
The base Beetle has a sophisticated nonturbo 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower, which is a big improvement over the old droning five-cylinder in the very last New Beetle. A more sophisticated 2-liter turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder with 200 horsepower comes in the Turbo model.
The turbo engine is the hot ticket. This VW engine is put in various Volkswagen and Audi models and feels more potent than it actually is. Figure on a 0-60 mph time of about 6.8 seconds with the turbo engine and 0-60 in a few more seconds with the 2.5 engine, which is noisier than the turbo engine under hard acceleration. .
A 140-horsepower VW diesel four-cylinder engine with lots of torque is due in 2012 and is said to deliver 43 miles per gallon on the highway. Volkswagen diesels tend to be outstanding. I cruised at an easy 100 mph in a Golf diesel several years ago on German autobahns.
The Beetle’s steering is firm, but precise, and handling is quite good with little body sway in curves and turns. The brake pedal has a linear feel and stopping distances are short.
The Beetle rode nicely at the preview, although cars were driven on mainly very smooth roads. Still, the Beetle has a firm-but-supple suspension setup, so the ride should be OK on rough pavement.
At first, the 2.5-liter engine will be hooked to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission and the turbo engine will be mated to a more efficient DSG six-speed dual-clutch automatic, with an easily used manual shift feature.. Five- and six-speed manuals will be offered at a later date on the 2.5-liter and Turbo models, respectively.
A Volkswagen official at the preview said the automaker is slowly easing in the manual transmissions because it wants to retain high quality for the Beetle. In any case, he said about 80 percent of Beetle buyers will opt for an automatic. A manual transmission wasn’t available for testing.
Estimated fuel economy is 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 highway with the 2.5 and manual and 20 and 29 with the 2.5 and automatic. Figures for the Turbo are 20 and 28 with the manual and 22 and 30 with the automatic.
The automatic in the Turbo model shifts quickly into higher gears unless you floor the throttle, obviously to help obtain better fuel economy.
All that body stretching of the 2012 Beetle results in a roomier interior. Front legroom is increased by 1.9 inches and front shoulder room grows by 2.5 inches. Overall, interior volume is up from 81 to 85 cubic feet, although legroom is tight behind a 6-foot driver who moves his seat just moderately back. Legroom behind a tall front passenger, though, is fine.
Despite replacement of the New Beetle’s “cathedral ceiling” dome roof, the longer roof section of the third-generation model results in about half an inch more rear-seat headroom.
The trunk has a rather high opening but is appreciably longer. It provides 15.4 cubic feet of space, compared with the New Beetle’s 12 cubic feet. Rear seatbacks fold forward and sit reasonably flat to increase cargo capacity to 29.9 cubic feet.
The long, rather heavy doors contain mostly useless storage pockets, although the interior is impressively quiet except for some wind noise during highway cruising. It’s a bit of a hassle to climb in or out of the rear seat via a sliding front passenger seat. The center of the rear seat is too hard for comfort, but front seats are comfortable and provide good side support in curves.
Gauges can be easily read, although the tachometer is too small. Climate and audio controls are easy to use, and front console cupholders are positioned to avoid spills. Large rearview mirrors fold flat against the side glass to prevent damage in tight spots.
The hood has a long prop rod instead of a hydraulic strut, but the engine compartment has easily reached fluid filler areas.
Volkswagen feels the Beetle in any form long has been its iconic vehicle. The general public seems to feel the same way, so the automaker knew the latest Beetle just had to be pretty good.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.