We recently had occasion to spend a week driving a car we didn’t believe would still be around this far into the game. Not that we didn’t like the New Beetle-when unveiled, we were charmed right alongside the rest of the automotive press-but we figured the model would be a one off; lasting no more than a single model cycle. After all, how do you update a car that’s based upon a cultural icon that never really changed? If you change it much, you lose the retro connection; if you don’t it becomes stale and unpopular. Well, perhaps the original Bug’s resilience should’ve tipped us off; Germany’s “People’s Car” lasted longer than some countries, with only minimal changes within a very lazy timeline. And now, it looks as if Volkswagen is aiming for the same thing with the New one.
For this year, the New Beetle got minor plastic surgery outside, and a whole-heart transplant inside. Just like VW did with the original, the New Beetle survives by gaining more power and cosmetic tweaks to keep it abreast of the passing wave of time.
Outside, the alterations are subtle. There’s a new grille element below the bumper area, with three distinct air inlets that lend a more aggressive look to the overall styling. Lighting elements and fender flares were reworked as well, but still, anyone but a hard-core Beetle fan would be hard-pressed to tell the difference based solely on a simple visual examination.
Under that cute, rounded hood-not where a Bug’s motor should reside, any purist would tell you (’til your ears fall off)-the news is a lot more newsworthy. The naturally aspirated engine choices have been cut to one, eliminating the old 180-horse turbo-four. At least the old 2.0-liter four, at 115hp described fittingly by the word anemic-has been supplanted by a much more sizeable 2.5-liter inline five. This is the same motor that powers the new base-model Jetta, and here it gives a much better account of itself. (VW would also like to point out that parts of this motor-the cylinder head, for instance-are adapted from half of the Lamborghini Gallardo’s V10…but Lamborghini themselves would like you to forget that entirely.) Although the Jetta’s somewhat flatulent exhaust note is retained-perhaps a symptom of the irregular cylinder configuration-150 horsepower in this application is a good number. The Beetle feels torquey and strong now; it’ll certainly keep up with traffic in this configuration
And if that isn’t enough for you, the fuel-sipping diesel model, with a turbocharged 1.9-liter oil-burner, is available; boasting a full 100 horsepower-adequate in mild-mannered driving but it matches nobody’s definition of sporty. Of course, this is perfect for those who might miss the old, familiar, singularly Beetle feeling we like to call “underpowered.” Still, fuel economy is in the 37/44 range with this option, and like the rest of the new-generation diesels from VW, Mercedes and so on, there’s little in the way of noise or pollution penalty. The Beetle GT model is discontinued entirely-but there’s still a ragtop on the lot, for those who prefer cute to scoot.
As for the 2.5 we lived with for a week, we timed a 0-60 m.p.h. run at a couple ticks under 9 seconds, which we list here in spite of our opinion that the Beetle doesn’t feel too badly overmatched by its deceptive/unexpected) three-thousand-pound curb weight. We do heartily advise against ponying up for the six-speed automatic tranny in this car, though-stick with the manual if you enjoy being able to get out of your own way. We averaged 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving.
Handling is another story. The New Beetle is somewhat top-heavy for a compact, obviously-the center-of-gravity deficiency is palpable is spirited motoring. There’s more grip than we ever needed, though, and steering response, aided by the optional, $400 225/45 rubber on 17″ rims (versus 202/55R16s), is passably fair for a front-driver. Torque-steer can be problematic here, as we learned-caution is advisable, especially when accelerating out of a turn with a curb on your left. In all, the New Beetle 2.5 isn’t a pocket-rocket, no matter how sporty it may look; treat it like its cute-car appearance suggests you should and you’ll never have a problem.
This VW’s interior is as unique as the exterior. Carried over are the body-colored upper door panels-not advisable for arm-resting-as well as a small flower (“bud”) vase. (Note that the official VW owner’s manual advises against driving your Beetle with anything in it, buds or otherwise.) The seats are diminutive but comfy, and rear-seat room is mainly compromised by that curving roof shape. Switchgear is modern yet ruggedly timeless; we haven’t seen it’s like in other VW models. Even the audio system has a hint of throwback to it; it’s that old single-DIN size we all remember from the last 20 years, with a neat blue glow, text and mp3 capabilities, and a decent amount of power.
Out back, where purists would expect to find the engine, is a surprisingly commodious trunk area. Offering about three cubic feet, the crescent shape of the storage compartment does impinge upon its utility somewhat, but it’s still more than you’d expect if you flip the seats down to increase the cargo area.
It takes a very special kind of person to buy and drive a New Beetle. Obviously, though, there are enough of you out there for VW to keep building them-eight years, now-and it would seem they must’ve done something right. With this new refreshening, however, the venerable Bug need not rely upon its styling for its appeal quite so much; it’s notably more capable with the new drivetrain. At $16-25,000, if nothing else, the 2006 New Beetle s remarkably affordable for an automotive fashion statement-and less penalizing for those who choose their cars based on fashion in the first place.