Greg A. Godsell

Could there be anyone who hasn't had a memorable experience with the VW Beetle? Love it or hate it, the Beetle was one of the few vehicles with enough character to become a living entity on the big screen. Volkswagen, in search of an image for the last few years, decided to resurrect the idea through a design study, the Concept One, shown four years ago in Detroit. Unanimously, VW was asked to build it and now the Beetle enters a new millenium.

Sharing only a similar shape and mission, the new Beetle differs significantly in execution from the original. Derived from the Golf platform, the new Beetle is a front wheel drive car with the engine transversely mounted in the front of the car. The air-cooled boxer engine has been replaced by the Golf's water-cooled 2.0-liter 4-cylinder powerplant. The storage area under the hood of the original is now a spacious hatchback with a removable package shelf. The spartan interior of the old Beetle has given way to a clean-sheet design, featuring high-quality cloth and plastic surfaces.

Style is the most notable feature of the new design. The exterior theme evokes memories of the original, with bulbous fenders, rounded roofline and curved front fascia, but manages to do so without slavishly copying the original. The plastic front and rear fenders wrap around the ends of the vehicle, sporting flush mounted lights that maintain their original locations from the classic. Look closely and the exterior sports some nice touches like a concealed trunk release latch, lurking behind the conspicuous Volkswagen badging. Initially color choices are limited to White, Red, Black and Yellow solids and Silver, Lt. Blue, Dk. Blue and Green metallics. Tie-Dye is not an option, nor is Rustoleum primer.

Rounded styling themes continue into the very modern interior of the new Beetle. High-quality materials surround the driver with seemingly good fit and finish quality. Large dials are clearly placed and the ergonomics of the instrument panel are top-notch. Thankfully, the only carry over from its predecessor in the interior is the passenger-side dash mounted grab handle. The Beetle is a subcompact, but manages some 84 cubic feet of interior passenger space and 12 cubic feet of cargo space within it's 161.7 inch long x 67.9 inch wide x 59.5 inch tall body. Tall drivers will benefit from the extra headroom afforded by rounded roofline of the exterior. Typical of current models, the Beetle features dual air bags. Extras like enhanced seat-belt retractors and side-impact airbags exceed the norm for models in this class.

Two engine choices power the Beetle. The standard engine is a 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder with a cast iron block and aluminum head. The base engine produces 115 bhp @ 5200 rpm and 122 lb.-ft of torque @ 2600 rpm. An optional 1.9-liter 4 cylinder TDI (turbo direct injection) diesel engine is available that produces 90 bhp @ 4000 rpm and 149 lb.-ft. of torque @ 1900 rpm. A somewhat chunky 2712 lb. curb weight retards the fuel economy. The combination of the base engine and standard 5-speed is rated at 23 MPG city / 29 MPG highway. Add the optional 4-speed automatic and the performance drops to 22 MPG / 27 MPG. Buyers willing to choose the TDI engine will see those number improve to 41 MPG / 48 MPG on the 5-speed and 34 / 41 with the automatic.

The Beetle suspension features independent struts in the front and a torsion beam axle in the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard with vented discs in the front and solid discs in the rear. ABS is available only as an option. Steering is power-assisted rack and pinion with a turning circle of 35.4 feet.

VW has executed the new Beetle as well as can be expected. Pricing has been set at $15,200 (US) for the base model with 5-speed and $16,475 (US) for the TDI 5-speed. For subcompacts, this places the Beetle in the company of cars like the Civic EX, and above other subcompacts like Escort, Elantra, and Cavalier. The price nearly doubles that of today's price leaders like the Geo Metro / Suzuki Swift and Hyundai Accent.

On paper, the Beetle may be compared to other sub-compacts; the styling is the key to this vehicle. Buyers who prioritize styling will find the appeal of the Beetle a bargain considering that they're probably also shopping for vehicles like the Suzuki X-90 or Toyota RAV4 -- you certainly can't get a bud vase in the dash of any other vehicle.

Personality will sell the Beetle this time around. This vehicle is a rare automobile that can emote and appeal to many, while competitive vehicles execute with bland precision (see VW's own Golf for an example). VW seems to have successfully replaced a charismatic icon with all the right stuff.