Like so many European car companies, Volkswagen has successfully recreated itself in the last five years. The company was selling only 50,000 units annually in North America in 1993. This year they expect to sell 300,000. A turnaround like that did not happen without a serious effort by company leaders to reassert Volkswagen's image: a company making cars that are affordable, practical, safe and fun-to-drive.
Although the turnaround began in 1994, it reached a full crescendo last year when the New Beetle landed in showrooms and was received with the kind of enthusiasm not seen since, well, the original Beetle went out of production 20 years earlier. The ad campaign focused on the car's cute appearance and loveable personality. Discussions of performance were answered with billboards touting, "0-60? Yes."
But the New Beetle's sales success, despite its dearth of performance, didn't mean that the car was incapable of performing. When you get down to it, the car is basically a cute version of the Volkswagen Golf, one of the best-performing compact cars currently sold in America. As such, it was only a matter of time before the company dropped in the 150-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged engine from the Passat GLS. This powerplant features five valves-per-cylinder, an intercooled turbocharger, and double-overhead camshafts.
With 156 foot-pounds of torque available between 2,200 to 4,200 rpm, the New Beetle 1.8T never feels underpowered or overworked. Whereas the non-turbo version's fun came from watching people stare and wave at you, this one is a blast even when no one else is around. Passing performance is particularly impressive, with the car sling-shotting around slower traffic in a manner not seen with previous New Beetles. Hill climbing offered another pleasant surprise as we drove the New Beetle 1.8T over mountain passes near Sedona, Ariz. Even when left in high gear the car managed to accelerate up the majority of steep grades. Downshifting, of course, brought a quick rush of power that thrust the New Beetle forward like a scared rabbit.
We were able to drive both a manual and four-speed automatic version of the 1.8T Beetle and, to our surprise, found the automatic to be an even better ride. The transmission was fully capable of picking the correct gear under various driving conditions and offered crisp upshifts while we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Obviously, true driving enthusiasts will want to opt for the five-speed manual, if only to satisfy their sense of control. But don't assume that buying an automatic New Beetle 1.8T means sacrificing any hopes of performance. This car is a blast and would make a great daily-driver in traffic-clogged L.A.
As pleased as we were with the turbo drivetrain, we wish Volkswagen had done something more to the underpinnings. Instead, they did nothing to upgrade the suspension from the standard New Beetle. The four-wheel independent setup uses MacPherson struts up front and an independent torsion beam axle with trailing arms in back. Luckily for Volkswagen, the New Beetle's suspension (like the Golf it's based on) is quite stable, with excellent road feel and plenty of steering feedback. Top-of-the-line GLX models include 16-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment, which greatly improve the 1.8T's look and feel.
Aside from the 16-inch wheels, GLX-trim Beetles get leather seating with heated front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles, a power glass sunroof, and a speed-activated rear spoiler. The spoiler is mounted flush with the body, just above the rear window. It remains there as an almost inconspicuous black square panel (except on black New Beetles, where it is completely inconspicuous) until activated by either an underdash switch or appropriate speed.
The switch is pretty tough to find, however, almost requiring a flashlight or night goggles to locate for the first time. But unless you live in Montana--no, wait, there's now an official speed limit there, too. OK, so the only way to deploy the spoiler legally is to find that elusive switch, since it doesn't go up by itself until this cute little car reaches 93 mph! Yes, you have to go almost 20 mph beyond the highest legal speed limits in this country to "deploy" the spoiler. Volkswagen's PR folks told us, with obvious pride, that the spoiler doesn't go up until it reaches a speed where some real downforce can be generated by it. Sounds good to us. After all, Edmunds had to lambaste the current Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 for its totally pointless and offensive boy-racer spoiler. However, we hate the idea of New Beetle drivers, and eventually VW, getting into trouble with the "93-mph wing." Imagine an auto-savvy cop pulling you over after you blow by him with the spoiler deployed. "Alright, I know that spoiler goes up only if you hit 93 mph or flip an extremely tough-to-reach switch. That means you were either speeding or driving carelessly. So which is it?"
By the way, this car will easily hit 93 mph and we're certain that autobahn-driven models will deploy the spoiler on a regular basis. At those speeds the car feels stable and confident, with plenty of downforce.
Spoiler woes aside, the New Beetle 1.8T offers a unique combination of safety, fun, practicality and value. Pricing for the new GLS, which still features the turbo engine, one-touch power windows, cruise control, fog lamps, and a folding center armrest, is only $19,000. Most of the standard GLX features, like 16-inch wheels, leather seating, and heated washer nozzles, can be added to the GLS. For those wanting all the toys (including the ticket-inducing spoiler) the GLX comes in at $20,900. All New Beetles come standard with air conditioning, six-speaker stereo, keyless entry, halogen headlamps, four-wheel disc brakes and (now standard in 1999) antilock brakes.
The New Beetle's future looks bright, and we hope Volkswagen continues to offer more variations of the car. A VR6 model, or an all-wheel-drive version, would be particularly cool. Until then we'll enjoy the turbo version's torque and power while hoping that 1.8T owners use the switch to deploy the spoiler.