American guitar icon meets reborn German hatchback for a characterful, limited-time duet.
It may produce 118 kilowatts of power as with the rest of the Volkswagen Beetle line-up, but more specifically this Fender limited edition grade produces a powerful 400 watts from its special audio system.
It also gets big, powerful bi-xenon headlights in addition to the big stereo, making this little three-door hatchback a bit like the small bloke who thumps out a really large tackle (in rugby, of course).
Those are the two main features that make this $34,490 Beetle Fender limited edition worth the extra $2000 compared with the regular automatic DSG-equipped model. Paying tribute to a classic American guitar brand also means going back in black, the traditional colour of rock being the only hue available, while chrome-finished mirror covers and 18-inch alloy wheels cement the 1960s throwback (power windows are standard, so it’s easy to let the smoke out…).
A ‘Beetle’ badge adorns the rear hatch, ‘Fender’ badges flank each front guard, there’s a ducktail spoiler – probably this tester’s favourite styling feature – and, inside, a cool ‘sunburst’ colour is splayed across the dashboard. ‘Sioux’ brown highlights are used on the floor mats and both the leather steering wheel stitching and trim for the leather/cloth sports bucket seats, which now also get lumbar support.
Interior lighting can switch between three colours, as can the outer rings of the front door speakers, which would be a cool idea if it hadn’t first been offered in the Kia Soul.
Larger wheels – with 245/40 R18 Continental SportContact 2 tyres – are the only change that may affect the way this Volkswagen Beetle drives compared with the standard models launched in February this year, so let’s focus first on the way it sounds.
The Volkswagen Beetle Fender edition gets eight speakers plus a boot-mounted subwoofer – complete with a requisite Fender logo – and a 10-channel amplifier pumping 400 watts into the small cabin.
Just as a favourite country road can sort the bad handling cars from the good and great, a particular song can quickly pick flaws and highlight virtues in a stereo system.
With the deluge of instruments used in the final minute of the Smashing Pumpkins’ track Tonight Tonight as a test bed – as an uncompressed audio file, not a rubbish MP3 – the system reached full volume without distortion. This heavily layered track, which belts the skins as violins fill the background and strings thrum, can become muddied in many systems.
The Beetle Fender doesn’t quite provide the clarity and definition of some of the best relatively affordable audio systems – such as the Audi A4’s optional Bang and Olufsen unit, the Jaguar XF’s optional Bowers and Wilkins system, or the Range Rover Evoque’s optional Meridian stereo – but this Beetle offers probably the best-sounding system available for under $40K.
Although the Beetle Fender may look old school, it also has daggy twentieth century connectivity, including an in-dash six-CD changer and humble auxilary socket. There is a USB plug, but it refuses to accept an iPod or iPhone using the standard Apple cable, despite everything from a Mazda 6 to a Holden Commodore Evoke allowing the regular cable.
The Bluetooth audio connectivity is difficult to use, and the colour screen resolution is far lower than that in the aforementioned Evoke and even a middle-grade Hyundai i30 hatchback, although the touchscreen itself is intuitive. Still, for a music-based limited edition the Beetle Fender is not technologically state-of-the-art, which is disappointing.
The Volkswagen Beetle is also dated in other areas. Although the latest generation design has toughened the looks, while remaining classically Beetle and completely unique, the chassis platform is based on the previous generation Volkswagen Golf. Even then, it gets the cheaper torsion beam rear suspension from the US-spec Jetta sedan, while the 1.4-litre twincharged petrol engine has already been replaced in newer Volkswagen models.
Compare the way the Beetle drives to a Golf Mark VII and it does appear rough around the edges. It lacks the Golf’s superb ride and interior quality, its hushed refinement, and, obviously, the roomy five-seat interior. The Beetle’s heavier iron-block 1.4-litre turbo- and supercharged four-cylinder engine produces 10Nm less torque (240Nm) than the Golf’s lighter, more frugal 1.4-litre turbo-only petrol engine, although the Beetle does get 8kW extra power (118kW).
Yet, as a testament to how good the previous generation Golf was, all the bits the Beetle uses are, when compared with non-Volkswagen models, still decidedly excellent.
The twincharged engine claims 6.4L/100km, which is 0.7L/100km more than the turbo-only Golf, but we saw a respectable 8L/100km in a mix of urban, freeway and brisk country road driving. With a standard seven-speed dual-clutch ‘DSG’ automatic the 1306kg Beetle claims an 8.3 second 0-100km/h which if anything feels pessimistic.
The DSG has suffered some recall foibles, but this latest iteration is in a driveability sense, fabled. Where once the dual-clutch gearbox shifted only based on engine revs, meaning in ‘D’ it skipped to the tallest possible gear and in ‘S’ it held gears too long, the software can now recognise hard driving and intuitively alter its shift pattern.
Combined with a sweet and always-punchy engine, the combination in the Beetle is anything but dated. It’s the same with the chassis.
Yes, the torsion beam rear suspension skips and hops over some mid corner bumps. (Essentially it connects the back wheels via a single rod, meaning a bump that hits one wheel affects the other, which is eliminated by the independent multi links in the Golf.)
On the low profile 18-inch tyres the ride quality is also mildly restless on the freeway and occasionally lumpy on urban arterials. Again, however, compared with almost every small hatchback in the class except the Golf, the Beetle provides very good suspension compliance and composure.
The wide, grippy tyres are seemingly incongruous with the soft-ish spring and damper rates, yet on twisty roads they combine to deliver a level of driving enjoyment that closely challenges the Golf (and Mazda 3, and Focus) for best-in-class honours.
The Beetle isn’t as darty as a Mini or Audi A1, both of which are equally compromised by style-centric packaging. The Volkswagen prefers to roll onto its outside tyres in corners, cling to grip, then allow the driver to adjust its attitude via the throttle.
Inconsistent steering somewhat affects the Beetle’s fluency, but it isn’t fatal. There’s too much freeplay on centre, where the weighting is also too light, but start to wind on lock and the power assistance backs off to provide chunkier weighting. It’s almost needlessly heavy in some instances, yet the terrific directness of the steering goes a good way to aiding feedback.
Practicality is a moot point in the Volkswagen Beetle.
The cabin is more characterful and unique compared with a Golf’s, yet the materials and finish aren’t as good; the rear seats provide enough headroom and legroom for this 175cm-tall tester; and the 310-litre boot is decent considering the swoopt lines, yet it is obviously more cramped compared with that sibling that begins with a ‘G’.
What the Volkswagen Beetle Fender edition offers is an alternative to a pragmatic, practicality focused five-door hatchback. For those who rarely use a back seat, and for whom a cranking stereo and design character mean more than obsessive finish and refinement, this new-age Beetle is a valid option more than just a rekindling of past glories.