You'll either love or hate the 'new' Volkswagen Beetle. Some will celebrate it as an icon brought up to date, whilst others will feel it's a sad pastiche of a best-forgotten relic and a Golf in drag. Whatever way you look at it, the Beetle is here, it's sold rather well and it's great fun to own. It might not attract the crowds or cause the slack jawed stupefaction it did when it was launched, but a Beetle will still put a smile on many driver's faces. Is the bug back? Most think it never really went away.
To be quite frank, we don't have much to thank Adolf Hitler for, but the KdF-Wagen (kraft durch freude - strength through joy) that was launched in 1941 certainly had something to be said for it. Fast-forward half a century to the mid 1990s, and over 22 million Beetle sales later. Volkswagen's designers produced the Concept 1 show car that received such a tumultuous reception that production of the new Beetle was ordered. First arriving on these shores in February 1999 in left-hand drive form only, the Beetle was an immediate success, although many took advantage of cheap European imports to drive costs down further. Around 800 'official' left-hand drive models were sold in the UK before the right-hand drive models started to be produced in decent numbers from the factory at Puebla, just outside Mexico City.
Late 1999 saw the introduction of official right-hand drive cars, which like the first models were powered by the venerable 2.0-litre 115bhp seen in the Golf, Bora and Passat since 1992 (new Beetle old engine). Despite promises of a wider engine range, it wasn't until the summer of 2000 that Volkswagen introduced another variant, the 1.6-litre. This 102bhp petrol unit was new not only to this car but to the entire Volkswagen line-up and acted as an import-busting value proposition for the Beetle range. 2.3-litre V5 and 1.8T engines were subsequently added to the range alongside a 100bhp TDI diesel. In early 2003 Volkswagen at last began imports of the eagerly awaited Beetle Cabriolet in either 1.6 or 2.0-litre forms and by summer 2003, a 1.4-litre engine had been added to both saloon and cabriolet versions and the 1.9-litre diesel also appeared in the drop top car, giving it a distinct Beetle thrum. Just from the wrong end.
A facelift announced in the summer of 2005 saw the wheelarches get sharper edges, the headlamps reshaped and round red taillights introduced round the back.
What You Get
A lot of attention. Paranoia. A strange compunction to make sure you look respectable before you get in, as you know people will stare at you. The Beetle provokes all of these reactions, which is remarkable when you consider the fact that it's basically a re-skinned Golf. If anything, the Beetle interior is even more of a shock than the outside; full marks to the design team for doing the job properly, rather than filling it with Golf and Polo dials from the Volkswagen parts bin. Of course, there are plenty of telltale Volkswagen signs; the switches, the firm seats, the positive gearbox - but you don't really notice them. What you do notice are all the natty stylish touches. The big central circular instrument cluster with its huge numbers and cute little built-in rev counter. Plus, of course, the vase (yes, you read that right), ready for you to fill with flower power. More macho buyers can pretend it's a penholder or something.
As you'd expect from the bubble-like shape, there's plenty of headroom up front. The base of the windscreen is a long way distant across a vast shelf of dashboard. It's almost like sitting back in your favourite armchair and watching a widescreen television. At night the view is beguiling, with spooky blue instruments filling the cabin with a diffuse glow. Rear seat occupants will be less enamoured however, with the sharply sloping roofline severely cutting headroom. No room in here for love, free or otherwise! Luggage space is rather tight, despite the hatchback arrangement.
Equipment levels include most things on the average wish list; the 2.0-litre version includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, central locking, electric front windows, ABS, power steering, tinted glass, a decent stereo and power/heated mirrors. On the safety front, there's twin side and front airbags built around a platform that's probably the safest thing this side of £30,000. Nice touches include folding rear seat that increases boot space, the height adjustable seats and the three 12V power sockets installed around the car. Options include a CD changer, leather upholstery, a sunroof, a winter pack with heated front seats and headlight washers and, for easy city driving, and a four-speed automatic transmission.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Beetle mechanicals have been proven over the years in Golfs, Boras and Passats, so there are no great surprises here. Due to some initial grouses about build quality, the Mexican plant at Puebla instigated better quality control procedures which right-hand drive cars benefit from. The earlier cars have a lower grade of plastics used in such fittings as the cup holders and these can be broken fairly easily. One feature which bugs Beetle owners no end is the headlamp switch mounted between the driver's door and the steering wheel. Anyone with longer legs will soon smash this dial into the fascia with their knee, and it doesn't come back out easily. If possible, avoid the cream cloth trim, as jeans can easily leach their dye into the seat material, making it look pretty secondhand in short order. Finally, with automatic models check the automatic boxes. Many of the early cars feature a four-speed 'box which allows 'Drive' to be selected and then lets the revs build for a second before lurching forward unceremoniously. Check that you can get along with this feature on your test drive.
You'll want to check on the history of your prospective purchase. Many cars were imported from Europe or the USA, and these had inferior specifications to UK cars, especially in the area of security. This could result in potentially calamitous repercussions if not disclosed to insurers. Ignition coils on the Volkswagen 1.8-litre engines have been a notable weak link. Check that the car has a decent service history and is free from parking knocks and scrapes. Finally, make sure you get in the correct seat when you go to drive away!
(approx based on a 1999 2.0 manual) Despite its more individual appeal, parts prices for the Beetle are standard Volkswagen fare. A clutch assembly is around £170, while an exhaust system with new catalyst is just under £700, while front brake pads retail at just under £100. Rear pads are £27 a pair and a new radiator is £140. A replacement headlamp unit sells for around £115, or you can buy just the lens section for about £40.
On the Road
For a car so closely based on the Volkswagen Golf, it would perhaps be surprising if the Beetle were to feel significantly different to drive. But it does. The enormous windscreen pillars restrict visibility and the car feels a lot bigger than any Golf. Performance isn't startling on the 2.0-litre cars, with a rest to sixty figure of 11.5 seconds before its catastrophic aerodynamics limit it to a 112mph top speed. The driving experience is, on the whole, favourable though. Stability feels better than a car of this shape has any right to, and refinement is a plus point. You'll get some reflections in the big windscreen, and the mirrors need to be bigger, but the big glass area gives the car a bright interior.
Handling is surprisingly good, with little body roll and a fair degree of grip generated by the modest tyres before the front end gently lets go. The manual gearboxes are a much nicer proposition than the automatic, helping to wring the available performance from that venerable 8v 2.0-litre engine. With an EC average fuel consumption figure of 30mpg, the Beetle isn't going to cause any long faces at the pumps. The diesel TDI averages over 53mpg and brings back that evocative Beetle chunter, but those who want a few more driving thrills will probably want to seek out either the V5 or the 1.8T versions, both of which will sprint to 60 in a tad under 9 seconds. Should these prove insufficiently flashy, try a Cabriolet.
Try to justify a reason for buying a Beetle over a Golf on purely rational grounds and you'll find yourself batting on an extremely sticky wicket. It does few things better and a lot of things a good deal worse. Where the Beetle does score as a used buy is as a cheap and cheerful fun car, shamelessly revelling in the attention whilst still offering reliable, modern motoring. An early left-hand drive manual car best fits this bill, although residual values will be better with a more conventional (albeit newer) right-hand drive model. Worthy successor or sad pastiche? Dump the historical baggage, forget the sixties ever existed and the 'new' Beetle suddenly seems worth it for the fun car that it is.