On paper, at least, the current incarnation of Volkswagen’s Beetle has little in common with Dr Porsche’s original air-cooled people’s car, being a Golf MKIV in everything but name and shape.
Not that this matters, of course. Volkswagen’s crude, noisy and comfortless rear engined, air-cooled original is the last thing that modern buyers would want. For them, the Beetle must be anything but the basic, functional transport envisioned by the original’s creator, Dr Ferdinand Porsche, back in 1945.
Modern Volkswagen Beetles are bought as fashion accessories, as second or third cars for the weekend jaunt or the trip to the squash club. Early US buyers included Beverley Hills celebrities, a president’s daughter and exclusive car rental establishments. The initial furore has cooled somewhat but in the UK, you can see them zipping about with advertising agencies’ names on the doors or parked outside fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. The MINI and the Fiat 500 may have taken over its ‘it-car’ mantle but the Beetle is dripping with the same sort of retro charm. To therefore complain about the lack of bootspace, the missed opportunity for extra doors in the rear, or even the price is meaningless.
"There are changes but what really matters is that this car still has style – and plenty of it"
Don’t buy a Volkswagen Beetle if you’ve a tendency towards the shy and retiring. Even now, people still stare. Don’t go expecting a tarmac rocket, mind you. Go for the 2.0-litre and power comes from a bog standard 8-valve engine – it’s torquey, rather than terrifically quick. Here, sixty is quickly dispatched in 10.9s on the way to 115mph. If you want even more style, try the Beetle Cabriolet. With either bodystyle, there’s a choice of five engines, the 75bhp 1.4-litre, the 102bhp 1.6-litre, that 2.0-litre 115bhp unit, the trusty 150bhp 1.8-litre Turbo or the 105bhp 1.9TDI diesel. There’s also an option of a six-speed automatic gearbox with the 2.0-litre petrol engine.
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 tell-tale 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 pen holder or something.
As you’d expect from the bubble-like shape, there’s enough room inside to wear a top hat should the mood take you. More practically, that high roofline does make travelling in the rear reasonably palatable – though legroom is at a bit of a premium.
Like all modern Volkswagens, the Beetle feels like it’s hewn from stone, with the kind of build quality you’d expect from something twice as expensive. The little touches help too; the lovely blue instrument lighting which illuminates only the figures on the speedometer; the beautifully designed unique-fit stereo. Even the Cabriolet feels solid. Unlike many open-top conversions, it oesn’t flex like a wobbleboard when the road is anything less than billiard table smooth. The Golf-based chassis is renowned as one of the stiffest around and the decapitation process has retained much of that torsional rigidity. The rear view mirror doesn’t get an attack of the DTs when you pass over an expansion joint nor are there the sort of creaks associated with the final moments of a Bond villain’s lair when you negotiate a speed hump.
On the road, the ride is Germanically firm and the handling competent but generally uninspiring. There’s the basis here, however, for a fine performance car but none of the engines quite deliver the requisite oomph. To be fair, the 1.8T manages the rest to sixty sprint in 8.7s on the way to 126mph. The entry-level 1.4-litre model takes 14.6s to do the 0-60mph and so best mimics the original Beetle’s driving experience.
The Beetle, being based on the old MKIV Golf and hardly in the first flush of youth itself, doesn’t come with Volkswagen’s latest engine technology installed. The units are tried and tested but fuel economy by and large isn’t what we’ve come to expect. The 1.9TDI diesel is the exception here: despite its age, it’s still capable of 52mpg returns with emissions of 143g/km. The petrol contingent’s best performer is the 1.4 with 40mpg and 169g/km. Its worst is the 2.0-litre with its 32mpg and 210g/km.
Hard top or cabriolet, the Beetle is an unashamed indulgence, both on the part of its makers and those who will buy it. There’s no rational reason for shelling out up to £19,000 on a convertible, but then if we did everything for rational reasons, the world would be very dull indeed. This car has made the automotive landscape just that little bit brighter.
The engine range is looking a little old hat these days but the Beetle has aged well overall. It still feels solid and drives well enough while the looks still have that retro appeal. More recent resurrections of past classics may have been better executed but the Beetle is still worthy of its place amongst the new old-timers.