Driven: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

By John Beltz Snyder

August 30, 2011

—Purcellville, Virginia
It was a relief to see the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle in person, and to see that it, in fact, lived up to its name, forsaking the cartoonish architecture of the last-gen “New” Beetle. With its flatter, longer roof, lowered stance, and upright windshield, we actually felt the instinctual urge to slug the nearest person in the arm. Some of the amassed Bugs were sporting retro wheels—and they actually looked great! Looking at the group of 2012 Beetles in the Volkswagen headquarters parking lot, we found it easy to recall some of our favorite driving experiences on the rainy, meandering coastal highway of central Oregon in our friend Luke Frels’s 1974 Beetle. Clearly, this new car was doing what it was meant to do, which is inspire an emotional response to the vehicle—a wholly welcome psychological manipulation.
The interior of the car also got us feeling something. Most cars on hand had dashboards of body-color plastic, but the one we spent the most time in had a more upscale-looking faux carbon-fiber dash. On the passenger side, above the standard glove box, was the old-Beetle-inspired kaeferfach second glove compartment, which opens up from the dash panel. It also had leather seating, the small rear row with pleated leather and the cramped, sporty look of something more along the lines of Porsche content. Our favorite touch was the flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel, reminiscent of the Golf GTI.
The driver’s seat was comfortable, and we were able to find a good seating position right away. Even in the cars with a sunroof, there was plenty of headroom. Visibility out the rear was quite limited, but we loved the forward view, the windscreen appearing very wide and not too close, or too far away, from our face. A glance toward the speaker near the A-pillar revealed that our car was using the new Fender premium audio system, which we would sample in a bit. First, though, we pressed the ignition button next to the gear lever, and got underway.
The immaculate rural highways we drove on didn’t give us much of a sense of how the ride would fare over the crumbling, tire-popping, war-zone-esque roads we use to get home from our Michigan office, but we were able to suss out a lot of the inherent NVH that most drivers would have to deal with in their home states. The most notable markdown was for wind noise. The 2012 Beetle’s windshield is more vertical than the previous generation, harkening back to the classic Beetle whose looks the new car is meant to mimic. Therefore, there was a bit of rushing and whistling, particularly in the gap between the windshield and the side mirrors. Despite what noise did make its way into the car, though, the cabin was quiet—so quiet, in fact, that we could often hear our passenger’s watch ticking as we sailed along at 80 miles per hour. Road noise was fairly minimal on these roads, but on rougher pavement, the wheels did grumble a bit at higher speeds. The noise of the engine, unless we were putting a lot of our right foot into it, was very hushed. At low revs, though, we could tell exactly what the engine was doing, as it transmitted those low-frequency vibrations to our hands via the steering wheel. When accelerating through the rev range, that vibration phased out while the song of the motor rose to meet our ears. For the most part, the cabin’s ride experience felt refined, with just enough cues on hand to let us know this car had power on demand.
As we got off the beaten path a bit, we started to encounter some heavy curvature and rolling elevation changes (as well as some gorgeous scenery, and a lot of stone walls standing in fields). Similar to some of our own favorite roads (only not pock-marked enough to require a trip to the chiropractor afterward), these winding, undulating stretches did much to show off the dynamics of the Beetle Turbo. Some of you may have already guessed this part, but in terms of driving feel, the Bug is not dissimilar from the Volkswagen GTI.
The turbo engine pulls hard enough to push you back in your seat, but it’s not the kind of acceleration that’ll rip your keys from your pocket. From a standstill, the Beetle does a good job of getting underway without that sort of “count to two” turbo lag we’ve seen on other blown fours. Mid-range thrust also feels nice and strong. When left to itself, the DSG transmission shifts at the right time, and does so impressively quickly and smoothly. Never did we find the car hunting for the right gear or mired down too low in the rev range. Also, our test car was equipped with paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel, allowing us to entertain ourselves exploring the engine’s power curve and the transmission’s cog-swapping prowess. Our only complaint was that Beetle did everything so smoothly that it felt too isolated most of the time.
Steering and handling also displayed this sporty-smooth character that feels totally capable, if somewhat mute. When we cranked the flat-bottomed steering to either side, the car turned in with swift ease, and carried itself through the corner flatly. We could feel what was happening via our inner ear, but steering wheel and chassis hardly had anything to say in response to our inputs. The Beetle Turbo just quietly did as it was told. Its ability to rotate, though, was most impressive, and we had no trouble keeping our speed up through the curves (even if the physical sensation of speed was dialed back a bit).
The brakes took a bit of getting used to. When we applied a bit of pressure, the car grabbed on and started to shed speed. When we needed to come to a quicker halt, though, we really had to step into it. In one of the most important driving dynamics to have a good sense of progression, the VW’s brakes seemed to offer almost a backward sensation. We would have preferred a little more play in the first inch of pedal travel, and sharper response the harder we stood on the brakes.
After a good bit of driving, everything about the Beetle felt fairly natural. Making and keeping speed was easy, and the car did nothing that would distract us from the driving experience. At the same time, the steering and the sound did little to engage us. We caught ourselves smiling, nonetheless, as we turned on the stereo to search for an appropriate soundtrack. What we found from the Fender audio system was a very clear sound, which we could easily hear over external noises and conversation. As we turned the volume up, the bass changed from having a very full quality to turning a bit fuzzy. The higher end of the low range seemed a bit too quiet, but the middle and high frequencies still stood out sharp and clear.
Beetle 2.5
We spent most of our time sampling various colors of the Turbo, but we did make a point to give the naturally aspirated version a go, too. We’re familiar with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine from other cars in the Volkswagen lineup, most recently the 2012 Passat. This larger, less powerful motor creates 170 horsepower and 177 pound feet of torque, but it doesn’t ask for premium fuel like the Turbo does. Equipped with a manual transmission, the 2.5 returns the same fuel economy figures as the manual Turbo, but the automatic 2.5 provides inferior mileage (20/29 mpg) as the similarly equipped Turbo (22/30 mpg). In terms of acceleration, the base motor feels predictably duller, taking a longer time to build speed, and putting on a less interesting show in the meantime; the power curve doesn’t offer much in the way of exciting exploration.
Engine performance isn’t the only difference between the two models. The most obvious difference was in the steering feel. While the Turbo Beetle uses an electric power assist rack and pinion setup, the base car employs a hydraulic system. We couldn’t get a sense of what the motor was doing through the wheel like we could in the Turbo, where vibration from the engine was evident, nor did the reaction from the front wheels seem as crisp. This wasn’t too huge of a practical drawback, as we were more able to hear the 2.5-liter motor as it tried harder to rev through the gears, and since we generally weren’t able to achieve the same cornering speeds as the Turbo, synaptic steering wasn’t as necessary. Still, the tiller was fairly direct, though it suffered from the same numbness, particularly on center. The 2.5 also lacked the Turbo’s multilink rear suspension and anti-roll bar. While it still cornered very flatly, and gave us nothing to complain about, the more powerful car’s chassis felt even more at home in the bendy stuff.
VS: Volkswagen Golf GTI
The closest dynamic competitor to the Beetle Turbo is from the same family. The GTI uses the same motor, and offers a very similar driving experience. They seem to be almost identical in terms of speed and ride comfort. The Beetle does feel a bit more willing to rotate, thanks mostly to its shorter wheelbase and excellent sense of balance. The big differences here are styling and functionality. With the GTI, you get a more usable rear seat and the option of two more doors. With the Beetle, you get a unique cabin and evocative retro looks. Pick your poison.
VS: Mini Cooper S
The Mini gets better gas mileage than the Beetle Turbo, with its smaller, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, and, while we can’t attest to actual times, it feels just a mite faster, too. The Beetle offers a super slick dual-clutch transmission, and a greater degree of comfort. While the Cooper’s chassis is super stiff, and, therefore, more communicative, the Vee Dub feels a lot more refined and a bit more stable, particularly on rougher roads. As much as the Bug makes us smile, though, the Cooper S just barely edges its way past the Volkswagen as a truer driver’s car.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo 6AT
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 200 hp/207 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.0 sec (est)
Weight: 3089 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/30 mpg
Base Price: $24,495
On Sale: October 2011