Back in 1998, some two decades after the last air-cooled, rear-engined VW Beetle buzzed out of a U.S. showroom, it came back. Sort of. Reincarnated as the New Beetle, this new car looked similar to the original but otherwise was a completely different bug. It was basically a Golf platform with a modernized Beetle body atop it. But some things about the New Beetle bugged us, such as the half acre of dash top, the awkward sight lines around the windshield pillars and the skimpy rear passenger/cargo space. Then there was the name itself, which has made for some oxymoronic episodes disguised as used car ads. The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle puts what is now the old New Beetle behind it, and the result is a car that gets more respect from us.
Although we've previously sampled the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo, this time we drove the Beetle 2.5, which should be the volume seller. Though it won't raise the pulse rate of pure-bred car enthusiasts, this is not to say the five-banger Beetle isn't pleasant to drive. It handles itself well on serpentine stretches of asphalt, and provided you select the Sport mode for the automatic transmission, there's ample performance punch. A user-friendly cabin with comfortable seats and a supple ride round out its appeal as a daily driver.
Although the newest Beetle boasts some key improvements that broaden its appeal, we're not about to turn a blind eye to its similarly retro-styled rivals. Those looking for a more engaging drive would be better served by the Mini Cooper Clubman while those looking for maximum space efficiency should check out the Fiat 500, which offers similar rear legroom and maximum cargo space but in a package that's 30 inches shorter. They'll also provide considerably better fuel economy, an advantage of no small consequence these days.
Spinning out 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is no rocket, yet it provides ample power for the Bug, though the car weighs 3,105 pounds. The Beetle's personality can be laggardly or lively, depending on what mode you choose for the six-speed automatic transmission. In Drive (a.k.a. maximum fuel-economy mode), the Beetle feels flat-footed, as it shifts quickly to taller, more fuel-efficient gear ratios and then is reluctant to downshift unless you nearly floor the throttle. Select Sport mode, however, and it's as if someone mixed some Red Bull with the gasoline. The Beetle feels much more energetic, as the gearbox holds shorter gears longer across the rpm range and then downshifts with a mere nudge on the right pedal.
At the track, we recorded a time of 9.0 seconds in the sprint to 60 mph from a standstill. That's not very quick, yet the Beetle feels sprightly enough in the real world of city traffic and freeway on-ramps. Its muscle-bound Turbo sibling blows it away, however, with a 6.6-second time. This sort of performance from the Beetle 2.5 would be acceptable if it was frugal with fuel, but mileage for our tester was disappointing. We averaged just 21.6 mpg over 840 miles of mixed driving against the EPA's combined estimate of 25 mpg. Adding insult to injury, the speedy Turbo earns the same EPA combined number as the 2.5.
The Beetle put down a good braking number at the track, the brakes and tires combining to bring the Bug to a stop from 60 mph in just 122 feet. Although we noticed the antilock system doing its thing via some noise and vibration in the pedal, the car came to a swift and straight stop. The travel of the brake pedal is a bit long, but the brake action is progressive and easy to modulate.
In terms of handling capability, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle 2.5 is something of a surprise; you don't expect something this cute to handle this well. The car turns crisply into the corners, while good control of body roll helps make it seem planted on the road, with the steering effort building up ideally as the car bends toward the apex of the corner. At the track, the V-Dub weaved through the slalom at 65.7 mph, a respectable performance.
Compared to the outgoing Beetle, the new one provides a better view of the road thanks to its more upright windshield and relatively slim A-pillars.
The front seats provide firm, well-shaped support, though more aggressive drivers who are wont to clip apexes may want even more lateral support. Shorter drivers should note that the driver seat moved up just enough for a 5-foot-5 editor to feel comfortable behind the wheel.
In the back, there's adequate leg- and headroom even for 6-footers, but the backrest is rather upright and too much like an upholstered church pew for us. To ease rear seat ingress and egress, the front seats automatically slide forward when you release the seatback. Handy rubberized grab straps mounted to the B-pillars add a retro touch.
We have mixed opinions regarding the Beetle's ride quality. Most staffers found the Beetle supple enough over the potholes and tar strips that make up much of L.A.'s major surface streets, but a few noted freeway hop over concrete expansion joints and felt that wind noise at high speeds was a bit excessive. In fairness we should note that at 70 mph the Beetle's cabin registered 65.7 dBA, while our long-term Mini Cooper S Countryman registered 3 dBA higher, yet we haven't heard many complaints about the latter.
All the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle's most often used controls are fairly intuitive to understand and easy to work. The radio has the old-school, time-proven volume and tuning knobs, although setting your presets is a bit of a hassle, as you must toggle between a tuning function and the preset "buttons" on the screen to lock them in. Once that's done, however, the audio control buttons mounted on the steering wheel make channel surfing a breeze.
Another tried-and-true setup is the classic three-knob design for the climate control (temperature, fan speed, air flow). And the available navigation system is intuitive enough that you shouldn't have to crack open the manual to decipher it.
Complaints here are minor but still worth mentioning. The dial-a-matic sunroof control is brilliant — the more you twist the knob, the more the roof opens up. But the maximum opening is rather stingy as it measures less than a foot in length. We'll give style points to the door pockets that have a web strap to hold things in place, but functionality suffers, as smaller items can escape via the opening below the strap.
Cargo capacity behind the rear seat measures 15.4 cubic feet, about the same as the Golf. And speaking of golf, those who want to throw their sticks in the back will find it necessary to flip down one of the rear seatbacks. Fold them both down and there's 29.9 cubic feet of space available. That rear seat won't accommodate a rear-facing child seat — most small cars won't — so it's front-seat only if that's the required configuration for your bambino.
Design/Fit and Finish
While the style of the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle remains true to the original form, unlike the "New" Beetle it looks more cohesive and less like a caricature. It is lower and longer than the outgoing model, which along with its more aggressive front and rear styling gives the latest Beetle some attitude.
Color-matched to the exterior paint, the dash and door tops successfully incorporate another design cue of the original. This two-tone interior treatment helps lend an upscale touch to the cabin, a good thing as there's more hard plastic here than one might expect (such as for the dash top and most of the door panels), though it's nicely grained and doesn't look cheap.
Who should consider this vehicle
In addition to those drawn to the iconic look of the Beetle, compact-car shoppers who want that solid German feel but don't care for the Golf's staid styling should check out its sassier sibling, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle.
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