I’ve got a confession to make. As with a disturbingly high number of motoring journalists, I have something of a problem with old Volkswagens. By that I mean I’ve owned numerous examples, and spent far too much money and time restoring/modifying them. That might be why I've been handed the keys to this 2015 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line.
My first VW was a genuine 1971 Karmann Convertible Beetle. My father bought that one as a partly restored project and we put it back together. It was one of the first cars I got my hands properly dirty working on, and it sealed my fate as a serial collector of cars requiring work. Following that initial foray, I’ve had plenty of other Volkswagens including a 1965 Type 3 Notchback, a 1958 Beetle Deluxe and the VW I still own, a ratty 1962 Single Cab Pick-up.
I’m only making these statements because it will give you a window into the fact that driving a new Beetle, for me anyway, is about more than simply whether it is a good or bad vehicle. I’m more interested in whether it respects the heritage, is true to the legend and builds on the legacy of what was always ‘the people’s car’.
First and foremost, a Beetle was always supposed to be affordable and attainable. It also had to be practical and user-friendly. Lastly, it had to be a vehicle that anyone could drive, anywhere, anytime. Interestingly enough, the motoring landscape has evolved to the point where buyers expect to be able to drive any vehicle anywhere, anytime. The original Beetle was one of the first cars directed at filling that brief, though.
This Beetle R-Line isn't the first warmed-over Bug that has been available to buy, and owners have been fettling Beetles since day one - making them look sportier, perform better and attempting to extract some measure of handling prowess out of an otherwise compromised platform. It’s fitting, then, that our Beetle is powered by the 118TSI engine (the same one you'll find in the standard Beetle model), and enhanced with the R-Line kit as well. It certainly looks the part and everyone in the CarAdvice office commented on the cool styling and retro appeal.
In regular trim you can get behind the wheel of a Beetle for less than 30 grand, with pricing starting at $29,990 plus on-road and dealer charges. The R-Line kit adds $2000 to the price, and with the 118TSI engine as tested here, pricing starts at $32,290 for the manual version (add $2500 for the DSG dual-clutch auto).
The R-Line package includes sportier front and rear bumpers, body-coloured wing mirrors, classy 18-inch alloy wheels, R-Line exterior badging, sports seats, aluminium scuff plates, steering wheel mounted shift paddles (for auto models), and a central dash-mounted cluster with gauges for boost, oil temperature and a stopwatch.
From the outside, it has to be said that the original new Beetle (launched in 2000) harked back to the classical Beetle styling to a greater extent than the current version. The taller roofline in particular looked a whole lot like an example from the 1960s. This revised model is lower, wider and chunkier than the model it replaces, and to my eye it actually looks better for it. The styling is more purposeful, it looks less dainty, more serious and more capable of some inkling of performance. This new Beetle is undoubtedly a more masculine car.
Inside the cabin, there’s a hint of retro (body coloured painted surfaces, for example) mixed in with the modern conveniences we’d expect from any new car such as Bluetooth phone connectivity, steering wheel-mounted controls, lots of storage and decent cup holders.
The cabin is spacious enough to accommodate two adults, with room in the back seat for adults if the front seat occupants aren’t of the long-legged variety. It is only a four-seater, though, which is smart given a fifth occupant wouldn’t be comfortable in the second row. On that note, the front seats flip forward effortlessly, and also return to the position they started in once the back seat occupant has clambered in.
The door-mounted pockets feature a thick elasticised band to hold loose items in place, and they aren’t especially practical. And if you have the central armrest down, you’ll struggle to get even small bottles into the cupholders.The glovebox mounted into the top of the dash is more naff than useful, but the lower glovebox is large enough to be handy.
Crucially for modern commuting, there’s a storage bin ahead of the gear shifter that accommodates a wallet and mobile phone perfectly. The aforementioned armrest also has a flip-up lid and is big enough for a wallet/purse, smartphone or audio device to be secreted away.
In terms of remaining true to the legend, the new Beetle has a few logistical issues - mainly the engine being at the front and the drive coming by way of the front wheels. That said, the packaging issues associated with rear engine, RWD vehicles means the Beetle is probably better for it. The fact the Beetle is based on the exceptional Golf platform (albeit the Mk VI Golf) is a definitive positive.
Up front is the excellent twin-charged (turbocharged and supercharged) 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, referred to as 118TSI thanks to its effortless 118kW power output. Torque tops out at 240Nm and in manual guise the official ADR fuel figure is 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres.
From an ownership perspective, I’d be a little worried about the long-term prospects of an engine that packs so much technology into it, and we've certainly heard and read some concerning accounts from owners of cars with 118TSI twin-charger motors.
The engine certainly benefits from the presence of both types of forced induction in a driving sense, and it will have you darting around town with a smile on your dial every time you get behind the wheel, assisted by a six-speed manual that forms a beautiful combination with the powerplant.
Plenty of cars promise go-kart-like dynamics and driving fun, but few ultimately deliver. The Beetle didn't either, until a mid year update in 2014, which brought with it a four-link, independent rear suspension setup (replacing the ageing torsion beam system). The Beetle really took me by surprise with its turn of speed and willing engine. It revs cleanly out to redline but doesn't require high revs on board to get up and moving thanks to the low-rev supercharger assistance. Off the mark, the Beetle gets cracking quickly and keeps gaining speed effortlessly the longer you bury the accelerator.
As you’d expect, the manual, being Golf derived, is short and sharp, with ratios that are perfectly spaced to suit the engine’s power and torque delivery. A highway run illustrated that the Beetle is just as happy to sit in sixth gear at 110km/h as it is to row through the lower gears enthusiastically up to 80km/h.
It does require premium unleaded though, 95RON as a minimum, but its efficiency lessens the pain of paying more in the first place. On test, over more than 200 kilometres of driving with plenty of city commuting thrown in, the onboard readout showed 8.9L/100km.
The Beetle isn’t a Golf, despite being based on one, and the steering especially feels different to the light-yet-precise action offered by the Golf. That’s fine by me though, with the Beetle being more than capable of a spirited (and most importantly, fun) drive through twisty country backroads.
I would have struggled to talk myself into buying the first iteration of the new Beetle. Not this time though.
The new, more muscular styling, and the incredibly versatile twin-charged engine make a strong case for me. I’d opt for the manual gearbox too. It’s easy to use around town, but a whole lot more fun than an auto when you want to have some fun.
It might be a slight departure from the dimensions and classical styling of the original and the first retro model that followed, but for me, it’s more appealing because of that. It offers up a near perfect balance between city practicality and driving fun, plus it looks more muscular than it ever has.
The Beetle is about more than just transport though. If you buy a new Beetle, you’ll stand out from the crowd, you’ll smile every time you look at it, and you’ll want to keep driving, which is a factor so many retro cars seem to fall short on.
A Beetle has always been about more than simply getting from A to B. It’s about having fun while you’re getting there. Mission accomplished.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.