1998 Volkswagen New Beetle Road Test

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If you love being the center of attention, Volkswagen's New Beetle is the car for you. Everywhere you go, people will wave, point, stare and laugh. They'll hang out the windows of their own car or truck and scream, "Your car's so cute!" as if you were Madonna. You'll feel like you've entered an exclusive club of Beetle owners. Drivers of older Beetles will coolly flash you the peace sign across rows of traffic and afford you a nod of approval. And everyone will smile.

When you stop in a parking lot, onlookers will swarm around, peek in the windows and bombard you with questions. Don't be in a hurry getting anywhere; you've got to schedule extra time for your fans. Don't bother asking anyone for directions; you won't get an answer until they've finished with their marveling. If you are in a public place and start to tell a friend that you're driving a New Beetle, suddenly you'll have half the patrons in on your conversation. And it's not just young people who wish they'd been around for the sixties. It's not only post-hippie Baby Boomers longing for a sense of their youth. It seems like everyone is curious about this car: young, old, male, female, the guy who owns the mail services shop, the woman working the drive-through at McDonald's, drivers of Hyundais and drivers of Saabs.

They all want to know — Is the engine still in the back? No, it's in the front. Does the heat work? Yes, and the air conditioning works, too. Is this some kind of concept car? No, you can buy it. Front wheel drive? Yup. How much do these cars cost? They start at $15,200. No way! Way. Sign me up!

The first time you drive a New Beetle, try this: tear your eyes away from the cute bud vase on the dash holding your favorite flower, stop fiddling with the radio trying to find Peter, Paul & Mary tunes, avert your attention from the spacious interior and forget about the mesmerizing lavender speedometer lighting. Look around, at the people in other cars, standing on the sidewalk and pointing from windows, who are stopping their daily activities to simply gawk. Look closely and you'll see the evolution of a smile. First their eyes will light up, then their lips will twitch and spread into a grin until they're smiling and laughing with crinkled eyes. It's an emotional thing: Everyone can be a flower child in the '90s.

Driving a New Beetle was as close to being both flower children and celebrities as we Edmund's writers will probably ever get. No other test car has ever engaged such intense public interest — not a Corvette, not a Porsche, not even a Mercedes roadster. One editor was so distraught over having to return the Beetle that he slid behind the wheel of a 1998 Mercedes SLK and felt disappointed.

If the exterior of the New Beetle can garner this much attention, imagine what will happen when people are actually driving them. We can tell you first-hand what will happen to others on the road — they'll do a double take, they'll stare with their eyes glued to your vehicle until you're afraid they're going to run off the road, they'll decide right then and there to visit their local Beetle dealer, uh, I mean, VW dealer. Ahhh, just what the folks at Volkswagen hoped would happen. Even more than they hoped. Somebody over in Germany is getting a raise.

And they should be, because the New Beetle is the grooviest thing to hit American shores since lava lamps and tie-dye. Not only is the car so cute it will literally cause people to run up and hug it (this has actually happened), but it offers all the modern conveniences that the first Beetles, which came to America in 1949, lacked.

Our first test car — a silver New Beetle with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, an automatic transmission and partial leather seats &mdash was dropped off at my apartment complex on an unusually gray Colorado day. I immediately hopped in and sped off to Michael's Craft Store, where I purchased two tiny sprigs of yellow and purple lilies for the empty bud vase. It instantly brightened up the car and the day. No sooner had we pulled into Boston Market for dinner that evening than onlookers surrounded the New Beetle, poking, touching and peeking. Vultures! Inside, the teenager taking our order politely asked if we'd divulge how much our new "Bug" had cost. He smiled when we told him.

Driving the New Beetle was an experience to remember — and repeat. Built on the new-for-1999 Golf platform, the wide tires hugged the roads and the transmission shifted smoothly. A few drivers were left wanting for more power off the line, which they can get with the optional 1.9-liter Turbo Direct Injection diesel engine, but others were quite pleased with the sprightliness of the small car. Which isn't so small, by the way. The New Beetle offers more room (a total of 96.3 cubic feet) and more power than its predecessor did. From the outside, it may look as if passengers would be crammed into an eggshell. But inside, the vehicle felt roomy thanks to a huge greenhouse and was comfortable even for the tallest member of our staff. Headroom is plentiful due to the high arch of the car's roof, and the more than two-foot deep dashboard seems to stretch for acres, leaving plenty of legroom available beneath it — even if you're 6'5" tall. With the backseat folded down, we were able to fit two pairs of skis, four ski boots, a large suitcase and two big duffel bags with room to spare. On another trip, a large Siberian Husky and an even larger Labrador Retriever sat comfortably in the back, tails wagging.

The second test car we received was Bright Blue Metallic with partial leather seats and a five-speed manual transmission. The stick shift offered more oomph at the onset and editors reported having even more fun driving it. Producing 115 horsepower at 5200 rpm, the spunky engine makes 122 foot-pounds of torque at 2,600 rpm.

Both of the cars we drove had dealer-installed six-CD changers in the trunks, making it easy for us to get into the groove of the flower power era with Simon & Garfunkel, Abba and Beatles tunes blasting out of six speakers. Controls on the modular panel were easy to identify and ergonomically sound. A digital clock hangs from the roof of the car, allowing drivers to look at the time with an uncluttered view. Driving at night provides a retro — 70s disco feel with red and lavender lighting on the control panel gauges. Behind the tilt and telescoping steering wheel, one large, round instrument gauge is easy to see day or night. The single recurring complaint about the car's interior involved the cup holders. Three of the four in the vehicle are clustered below the stereo and climate control console, providing enough height for cans of soda, but not enough room for taller bottles. A Starbucks Grande Frappucino will fit, but only with the straw bent.

Volkswagen engineers have made safety a high priority for the New Beetle. The car feels solid and comes equipped with daytime running lights, dual airbags and side airbags which are integrated into the front seats. Although the car did not have sliding seat belt adjusters, it did offer the trademark Volkswagen crank, which raises or lowers the seats to the driver's and passenger's desired heights.

The exterior of the car speaks for its own cute self, yet in a sea of admiring eyes, we did manage to find one gas station attendant who was none too pleased with the car's looks. He likened it to "an Easter egg on wheels" and said he couldn't believe Volkswagen built a car "uglier than the first Beetle." We chalked his opinions up as coming from someone who has inhaled a few too many gas fumes, but recognized that there may be a segment of the population out there who agrees. We just don't agree with them. In fact, we think they're high.

The alloy wheels that came on our test cars looked snazzy, but the car's low ground clearance ensures that this vehicle won't be seen off the road. Like the Beetles of yesteryear, Volkswagen engineers inserted a passenger assist bar above the glove box, two rear assist straps and bumpers that pop in and out for easy fixes. Gas mileage is excellent, offering 23 mpg in the city and 29 mpg for highway driving. Spend an extra $1,275 for the turbocharged diesel and you can get up to 48 mpg. That's pretty impressive, especially considering it only cost us five bucks to fill half a tank of gas. The fuel cap can be attached to the fuel door by way of two handy prongs.

There is so much to say about the vehicle, but the bottom line is that it makes everybody happy; it's a fun, refreshing car that drips with personality, right down to the smile on its hood. It also comes in an array of sunny, cheerful colors including red, yellow, white and black in non-metallic finish, and silver, bright blue, (lime) green and dark blue metallic hues.

The only thing people are talking about more than the New Beetle itself is the creative advertising campaign that Volkswagen released. One popular New Beetle ad asks, Is it possible to go forward and backward at the same time? Listen up, America, the answer is yes.

Second Opinion

Dear Volkswagen,

Driving the New Beetle around Denver in early March gave me an idea of what it would be like to be Tom Cruise's best friend as he walked down Disney World's Main Street wearing a sandwich sign that read: "Hi! I'm Tom Cruise!" Never before have I driven a car on public roadways that induced such severe gawking. At the local mall, the New Beetle's presence nearly caused a wreck. People sped up, slowed down, zigged across traffic, and zagged from lane to lane to get a closer look. Neighbors I didn't know stopped by for a chat when the car was parked in my driveway. Some people stared at the car, mouths agape at first, but quickly broadening into a smile. Others demanded conversation about Beetles they used to own: "I had an orange one in college!" "Where can I get one?" "Is the engine still in the back?" "Any trouble climbing hills?" "How much?" "Does the heater work?"

Beetlemania is almost creepy at times. But the car evokes memories in nearly every American over the age of 25, and is desired by Americans under the age of 25 who've embraced anything the '60s stood for and anything worn during the '70s. I myself have fond memories of good times involving at least three different Beetles. What a phenomenal marketing move this car is. This weekend alone, hundreds of people in Denver are thinking about Volkswagens who otherwise wouldn't be, simply because they saw me driving the car.

The New Beetle is an unremarkable performer in comparison to other modern machines, but former owners will find it an immense improvement over the original. It's reasonably quick, very comfortable, a decent handler and much larger than I expected. The driving position is nothing short of perfect and visibility is excellent despite those distant A-pillars that curve right into forward vision. The appropriately funky interior with Audi-red backlighting for controls and a soothing blue glow to illuminate gauges and displays is very cool. There is a somewhat industrial ambience inside the New Beetle, but your designers gave the interior plenty of retro touches to give it flair.

My quibbles include an automatic transmission that takes its sweet time shifting from Reverse to Drive, radio controls that are too small, poorly marked HVAC dials, washers that aren't up to the task of clearing grit from the huge windshield, no split-folding rear seat and a serious lack of rear headroom. The speakers in the car I drove thumped the jams, though, and the snap-in floor mats are much better than the kind that hook into place. I enjoyed every minute I spent behind the perfectly-sized and slickly-styled steering wheel. This car makes everybody smile, including the driver. It appeals to young and old alike, crossing all socio-economic boundaries despite a price tag that almost anybody can afford. You'll sell every single one you can build, and for a long time your dealers will be able to demand sticker price and get it. You've built a wonderful car and priced it perfectly. Now, when can I get my hands on a turbocharged convertible?

Impressed as Hell,

Christian J. Wardlaw
Editor-in-Chief, Edmund Publications

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