Once upon a time, it was very cool to have a turbocharger on your vehicle. Everything from Toyotas to Trans Ams had the word Turbo emblazoned upon their outer shells, telling all the world that these vehicles benefited from the magic of exhaust-driven forced induction. Then, much like the dinosaurs of days gone by, turbochargers abruptly vanished from the world of U.S.-sold production cars. The reason? They could not adapt to changing environmental conditions (in this case, emissions standards), and so they became nearly extinct (with a few notable exceptions, including the Porsche 911).
Now, however, as if living out a blockbuster Hollywood screenplay, turbos have returned to once again live among North American Homo sapiens. And much like said blockbuster, we can thank improved technology for bringing the turbo back. We can also thank Volkswagen for being the first company to again stamp Turbo on a mainstream model's bodywork. In this case we're talking about the 2002 New Beetle Turbo S, the latest version of Volkswagen's classic icon, and the model that is largely credited with reviving VW's fortunes in the U.S.
Volkswagen officials like to refer to the Turbo S model as "spicy," and even outfitted our test vehicles with appropriate red peppers (housed conveniently in the New Beetle's bud vase) during a recent press introduction.
But while the red peppers acted as mere window dressing within this newest New Beetle's cabin, multiple hardware and design changes serve to back up the Turbo S emblem proudly affixed to the car's rear hatch (an emblem using a font that looks very much like another German automaker's script denoting its higher-performance "S" version).
Get within 50 yards of this VW and you'll likely notice the 17 x 7-inch "Delta X" alloy wheels that come standard on all Turbo S models. With thick triangles separated by five rectangular slots, the wheels almost look like a reverse Hot Wheels toy-car design. Wearing P225/45 tires, the sportiest of New Beetles promises sharper turn-in and reduced body roll. The Turbo S delivers on both promises, but with the H-rated all-season tires found on our test model, ultimate grip was not up to the levels offered by some less expensive performance hatchbacks, including the new Ford SVT Focus.
On the plus side, character traits often associated with low-profile tires, such as a tendency to hop over expansion joints and crash over road imperfections, were largely absent in the Turbo S. The relaxed, friendly ride that so many have come to expect from this "cute" car was largely unaffected by the wheel and tire upgrade. Credit the suspension tuning, which VW officials told us was only "slightly stiffer" than lower-line Beetles, for the car's retained easy-going nature. While die-hard performance fans will likely find the Turbo S too flabby, most customers will appreciate the balance between improved handling manners and retained ride quality.
But even the fastest and most furious of import enthusiasts will appreciate the Turbo S model's powertrain improvements. Effectively pilfering the base Audi TT's drivetrain, Volkswagen has equipped this Beetle with a 180 horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged engine and hooked it to a six-speed manual transmission. That's a 20-percent boost in horsepower over the standard Turbo Beetle, and combines with a peak torque of 173 lb-ft to give the S model a 0-to-60 time of 7.4 seconds, according to Volkswagen. Our highly calibrated seat-of-the-pants-o-meter doesn't dispute those numbers, with the Beetle launching from a standing start and pulling hard beyond 6,000 rpm. For those interested in displaying their Turbo S Beetle's power, disabling the ESP makes it easy to spin the tires freely all the way through first gear.
If the term ESP is foreign to you, don't fret. The Turbo S is Volkswagen's first passenger car (sold in the U.S.) to offer the added benefit of the company's Electronic Stability Program. As the name implies, ESP utilizes a combination of steering and yaw sensors to detect when the vehicle is deviating from its intended course. Engine power, individual wheel braking and transmission tweaks are subsequently incorporated to bring the vehicle back on track. Certainly it can't break the laws of physics, but it may bend them in your favor at a crucial moment. You can expect to see ESP available throughout VW's model lineup in the not-too-distant future.
Upgrades to the Turbo S are not limited to the drivetrain and suspension. Upon entering the cabin, Volkswagen aficionados will encounter a number of modifications to the interior. These include obvious enhancements like leather seats (heated, of course) that feature gray inserts and stitching over black side bolsters. The uniquely designed leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel uses dimpled, metallic spokes in a very Audi TT-like design cue (this same treatment is repeated on the leather-and-chrome shifter). Even more impressive are the real metal door and glovebox release handles, along with the brushed metal shock housings that hold up the rear hatch. These components are backed up by the usual array of soft-touch materials lining the door panels, dash and center console. As is typically the case, Volkswagen has taken into account where most vehicle owners spend most of their time, and outfitted the interior accordingly.
Our complaint list after spending two days in the Turbo S is remarkably short. Like the Turbo model, this one has a rear spoiler above the backlight that deploys at certain speeds. Unlike the Turbo model, the spoiler on the Turbo S pops up at just over 40 mph and retracts when the speedometer drops below 10 mph. This results in a somewhat intrusive "whir-clunk" every time the vehicle slows to a stop after getting above 40 mph (a fairly regular occurrence in major urban areas). We'd also like to see an improvement in headrest design. The large "doughnut" headrests in our test car proved uncomfortable and unsupportive. Volkswagen officials told us both items are already being looked at, with improvements likely in the near future.
The New Beetle's popularity has dropped slightly in the last 12 months. Over 80,000 units were sold in 1999 and 2000, but VW expects just over 60,000 Beetles to leave showrooms in 2001. The Turbo S model won't reverse that trend all by itself, with a price of $23,400 and projected annual sales at around 5,000 units. While it may be the most expensive Beetle yet, that price includes a healthy list of standard features. An eight-speaker Monsoon sound system, the aforementioned six-speed transmission and ESP, dual power outlets, as well as the company's enhanced warranty protection and roadside assistance for 4 years/50,000 miles, are all standard.
Volkswagen officials think the emotional market for the Beetle is tapped, and has focused recent advertising efforts on the car's logical traits, including its roomy interior and excellent crash test scores. There will also be a number of special colors offered in 2002, including Snap Orange, Double Yellow and Cyber Green. Finally, remember that a convertible version will debut in the fall of 2002, with a new wave of Beetle-mania likely to follow.