Don’t be fooled by its hot-rod looks and cheeky grin: the all-new Volkswagen Beetle is much more than a novelty car.
This third-generation Volkswagen Beetle, officially codenamed A5, succeeds the ‘New Beetle’ – the super-cute flower vase on wheels that ignited the neo-retro craze at the turn of the millennium and found more than 7000 homes in Australia before production ended in 2011.
While that car was based on the VW Group’s PQ34 platform that dated back to the first-gen Audi A3 of 1996, the all-new Volkswagen Beetle upgrades to its successor, PQ35 – an architecture shared with the second-gen A3 and the outgoing Golf Mk6.
Happily, similarities with the outgoing Golf – the small-car class-leader across its four-year life – are obvious.
Chief among these is the Beetle’s drivetrain. Volkswagen Australia is offering the Beetle with just one engine – the 118TSI twin-charger from the Golf – and the option of either a six-speed manual for $29,990 or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG transmission for $2500 more.
The 1.4-litre turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder petrol engine produces 118kW of power at 5800rpm and 240Nm of torque across a tremendously broad 1500-4500rpm rev range. The decent lump of torque available from just north of idle makes the Beetle feel eager off the line and around town. It’s also superbly versatile, providing impressive in-gear acceleration, reducing the engine’s need to rev harder and louder on the likes of freeway onramps and when overtaking.
Question marks remain over the reliability of the complex twin-charged motor, however. Indeed, Volkswagen is in the process of phasing the technology out – the new Golf Mk7 has ditched it in favour of a simpler turbo-only mill. Regardless, it’s impressively refined and beguilingly sporting for an engine of such small capacity.
It forms a neat partnership with the manual gearbox, which feels solid and accurate in-hand and combines with an equally tactile clutch pedal.
The seven-speed DSG auto is the standout, however, delivering well-timed, near-imperceptible gear changes. Dropping the shifter into Sport mode ensures the transmission hangs onto gears for longer on acceleration and makes its more eager to downshift, transforming the Beetle into a more responsive and enthusiastic beast (or is that superbug?).
A stint comprising mostly highway kilometres on the Volkswagen Beetle’s local launch around Brisbane gave us few opportunities to assess the DSG’s low-speed refinement – a common criticism of the German manufacturer’s dual-clutch unit – so we will reserve final judgement for a more urban-based road test. Our initial drive found it to be adequately refined for simple tasks like navigating shopping centre carparks.
The flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel feels nice in your hands and looks the part with a body-coloured hub and spokes. The one negative is a lifeless feeling at the straight-ahead position that lacks the stability of its sharper rivals. It’s otherwise consistent and predictable through corners and reasonably quick, making the Beetle easy and entertaining to flick from side to side.
The ride is also composed, with the Beetle at ease on quality surfaces and competent over coarser country roads. Its ability to remain flat and unflustered over bumps and undulations makes it feel settled in most situations and rewarding to punt along twisty roads. Road noise is noticeable when driving on coarse surfaces, and the upright windscreen generates some wind noise at higher speeds.
The similarities between the Beetle and the Golf are fewer inside the cabin than under the skin. Where Golf Mk6 has been criticised for being bland and grey, the Beetle – while still undeniably nailing ‘Volkswagen conservative’ – sports bold splashes of high-gloss exterior-matching plastic across the dashboard and windowsills. The $3300 optional leather seats can also be ordered with flaming red inserts for no additional cost. (Click here for a full summary of the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle’s specifications.)
While the design is more eye-catching and youthful, the quality of the Mexico-built Bug’s cabin falls short of the high standard set by its five-door sibling from Germany. While neat chrome and gloss black inserts add a premium finish and the infotainment unit is also ripped straight from the VW parts bin, the Beetle lacks the Golf’s soft-touch plastics, switchgear tactility and overall solidity.
Some at the launch found it hard to perfect their seating position – something not helped by the basic driver’s pew that lacks side support and possesses a firm, flat base that can leave taller drivers’ knees floating around. Visibility is decent front and rear, although the rear-view mirror is quite small.
The two rear seats are a temporary transport solution at best. Legroom is tight even with the driver’s seat adjusted for a shorter driver, and those above 5ft10in will be searching (or slumping) for more headroom despite some clever scalloping of the tailgate headliner to create as much room as possible.
Boot space has grown substantially from the previous-generation Beetle, up 101 litres to 310L, giving the Volkswagen an advantage over the Mini Cooper hatch (160L) and Citroen DS3 (285L), and falling 10 litres short of the Hyundai Veloster. Folding the Beetle’s 50:50 split rear seats forward expands cargo capacity to 905L.
A five-star ANCAP-rated safety package includes four airbags and electronic stability control, along with the usual assortment of active and passive protective systems.
Volkswagen Australia has also announced a capped-price servicing program for the Beetle. The maximum cost of the first six services – which covers 90,000km or six years at 15,000km/12-month intervals – is $2623, with the price of individual services ranging from $375 to $638.
While it will inevitably suffer some image issues and its price – at $500 more than the equivalent Golf – may leave some (particularly rear-seat passengers) feeling short-changed, the new Volkswagen Beetle offers significantly broader appeal than the model it replaces. The terrific drivetrain and chassis do their best to distract you from the compromised cabin, and make the Beetle no longer a car to buy on looks alone.