A BUG'S LIFE
Can Volkswagen's third generation Beetle be more than just a lifestyle statement? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Once more, Volkswagen has reinvented the Beetle. Bigger and more efficient than its predecessor, the third generation version might not look quite so extrovert but it's a far better car. More importantly for its target market amongst retro rivals, it's also a more stylish one. Aesthetics matter. Go on. Live a beautiful life.
A million New Beetles - the second generation version of this iconic design - were sold over thirteen years, 68,000 of them in the UK, but the modern take on this iconic design was never quite the success it might have been. The curvy Toytown looks and touches like the flower vase on the dash left it as an exclusively feminine and fashion-centric choice, buyers who quickly forsook its charms when at the turn of the century New MINI and much later, the reinvented Fiat 500 came along. Volkswagen wants them back and aims to achieve that with this third generation model, a car that aesthetically at least, is much closer to the design of the original.
Longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, it's intended to look more sporty, masculine and dynamic. And because the Golf underpinnings remain - this time more modern ones - it can be a more practical choice than its retro rivals. Add very competitive running costs, perky performance and a dash of hi-tech and you've a car that could reignite the Beetle cult all over again. Let's try it.
Let's cut to the chase. No, this car doesn't offer quite as good an overall ride and handling package as you'll find in the Golf, but to compare these two cars is an irrelevance. You'll buy a Beetle because it's a bit of fun and because there aren't too many compromises required in doing so. And that's all a million miles from the dull, sensible practicality of Golf motoring. Even Golf GTI motoring, this hot hatch having donated many of the underpinnings for this car. Including a de-tuned 200PS version of its turbocharged petrol engine for the top 2.0 TSI Beetle which fires it to sixty in around 7.5s on the way to nearly 140mph.
This is the only Beetle variant to feature the Golf's state-of-the-art multi-link rear suspension set-up. Lesser models - the ones most people will actually buy - get a simpler, cheaper torsion beam arrangement, hence perhaps the slightly poorer ride. It's one of these we tried, a car with an engine that's anything but retro. This is the 1.4 TSI model, probably pick of the range, offering a 160PS output from an engine that uses both supercharging and turbocharging to produce a healthy 240Nm of torque, good enough to see this car to sixty from rest in 8.3s, so it's nearly as quick as the 2.0-litre variant. It's pretty good round the twisty stuff too, like its larger-engined stablemate sharing the Golf GTI's clever XDS electronic differential lock. This improves handling through fast corners by selectively braking the unloaded wheel on the inside of the curve, so preventing wheelspin and firing the car through the bend.
But even rejuvenated Beetle motoring isn't really about high performance and with that in mind, you may feel minded to save a little and opt for the lower-powered petrol derivative or one of the diesels. Petrol-wise, you're looking at a turbocharged 1.2 TSI unit, surprisingly punchy despite its modest 105PS output. With 175Nm of torque on tap, sixty here is 10.9s away en route to 111mph. Also offering 105PS is the 1.6-litre TDI diesel option with its frugal BlueMotion Technology mods, a unit that slots under a minority interest 2.0 TDI with 140PS.
Design and Build
Against the odds, something of a feel of Dr Ferdinand Porsche's early 'Peoples' Car' has somehow made it through to this third generation model, most notably in the large wheels plumply positioned beneath the flared flowing arches and a rear C-pillar that follows the contours of the original design. So there's something of the past, artfully mixed with a sporty vision of the future.
Moving inside this three-door-only bodyshape, you notice that the frameless doors open wide - but not so wide as to make ingress difficult in tight parking spaces. And at the wheel, you're seated behind a traditional upright dashboard with a set of three traditional dials visible through a sporty three-spoke thin-rimmed wheel. Unfortunately, the plastics are traditional too, so no Golf-like soft-touch surfaces. Still, the quality seems good even if the Mexican factory doesn't seem to screw things together quite up to German-fabricated Golf standards. Still, the look and feel all seems to suit this car's retro vibe, especially with the body-coloured door sill and dash inserts you get on plusher models. And on that subject, other early Beetle touches include the upwards-opening glovebox, natty elastic straps instead of door pockets and the optional auxiliary instruments you can specify to sit above the infotainment controls. You'll look in vain for the MK2 Beetle's dash-mounted flower vase though. Good.
Market and Model
Expect to pay somewhere in the £17,000 to £25,000 bracket for most versions of the hardtop Beetle model we're looking at here, depending on the model and spec you decide upon. That's not bad value in Volkswagen terms, something aided perhaps by the fact that this car is Mexican-built with more affordable labour. Though a 200PS 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine has been developed for this car, along with both 1.6 and 2.0-litre diesels respectively developing either 105 or 140PS, most UK sales will be of the 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol engines that this car was launched with.
So, what are the features you can expect to find, regardless of your choice between 1.2 or 1.4-litre petrol power? Well, it's a bit disappointing to find that the entry-level model does without an alarm, alloy wheels or Bluetooth 'phone compatibility but all models do get Climatic semi-automatic air conditioning that also cools the glovebox, a trip computer, power heated mirrors, electric windows, an 8-speaker MP3-compatible CD stereo with aux-in point and a hill-holder clutch to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
Cost of Ownership
Sensible virtues probably won't be top of your agenda in selecting a Beetle, but should they happen to be, then you'll need to be talking to your dealer about the 105PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel version, as it comes with all of Volkswagen's cleverest 'BlueMotion Technology' efficiency tweaks: low rolling resistance tyres, a battery regeneration system and a stop start system that cuts the engine when you don't need it in traffic or at the lights. As a result, it'll emit just 114g/km of carbon dioxide and can return an impressive 65.7mpg on the combined cycle which will give a usefully long operating range from the 55-litre fuel tank.
As for the petrol models, well the entry-level 1.2 TSI manages 47.9mpg on the combined cycle and 137g/km, while the 1.4 TSI delivers 42.8mpg and 153g/km. And residual values? Well, for the time being, a Beetle is fashionable again - and that means this car will hold onto the money you've paid very well - better probably than a comparable Golf. Whether that'll continue to be the case long term will probably depend upon the vagaries of fashion. Insurance isn't too prohibitive, to give you an idea rated at either group 10 or 11 for the 1.2 or group 18 for this 1.4, these groupings on the 1-50 scale.
You could argue that in this MK3 design, we finally have the proper Beetle tribute model we should have had in the first place. This car borrows its heritage, its silhouette and its retro uniqueness from the post-war original, but fuses it with the sort of fuel economy, safety and creature comforts that the modern buyer demands - without the retro excesses and gender-specific touches of the second generation car. This time round, the sportier look is matched by a sportier feel from an efficient range of engines but even so, this is a design you'll still either love or hate.
Which is just as it should be. A model like this remains an unashamed indulgence, both on the part of its maker and those who will buy it. True, the trend modern Beetles once set for High Street chic has now been copied by a whole clutch of rivals. Yet you can see why loyal owners love this Volkswagen so much. It certainly isn't a rational choice. But then, if we did everything for rational reasons, the world would be very dull indeed. Just as its original predecessor did over seventy years ago, this car has made the automotive landscape just that little bit brighter.