By David Undercoffler
9:25 PM EST, November 9, 2011
You have to hand it to Volkswagen.
The company is axle deep in the middle of a global automotive ascent that hinges on mainstreaming and Americanizing the schnitzel out of its sedans, the Jetta and Passat. Yet at the same time, albeit with a hefty reliance on the corporate parts bin, Volkswagen manages to put together one of its most unique and balanced models in the entire fleet.
That effort is the 2012 Beetle.
Volkswagen went to some lengths to make sure this new Beetle is not the "New Beetle" that debuted in 1998. That car looked like a pile of bubbles, and women flocked to it in higher percentages than almost any other car on the market.
A color palette that offered hues like light green, sky blue and a darling shade of yellow did little to draw those of us with an XY chromosome pair into the showroom. It probably didn't help that Volkswagen made a sparkly pink New Beetle convertible to help celebrate Barbie's 50th birthday.
So for the 2012 Beetle, VW wanted men, the kind to whom a Mini Cooper or Volkswagen's own Golf might appeal.
To get them, designers popped some of the previous version's bubbles and curves. They leveled out the domed roofline and hood, and stretched that hood out longer. These modifications moved more of the visual mass toward the rear of the car, giving it a more coupe-like profile.
Volkswagen also refreshed the headlights, and VW gave the rear design of the car the company's best look of the year. It's clean and modern, and makes the most of new width and shoulders to create proportions that are more horizontally oriented than vertically.
Overall this Beetle grows 6 inches longer and more than 3 inches wider and is half an inch lower.
Although the effort achieves more gender neutrality, it could have gone further. Nothing about its appearance is anywhere close to emasculating, but if you're looking for a car to define the amount of testosterone coursing through your veins, the Beetle isn't for you.
For my money, I would have liked to see the front with even fewer curves; VW still had some room to modernize and yet maintain its Beetleness.
Inside, the Beetle shuns its formerly bulbous and circularly dominated layout altogether.
Everything the front passengers can see and touch comes straight from Volkswagen's Jetta. This is a welcomed improvement, and the tasteful mainstream design should help in the effort to appeal to a wider audience. What the Beetle lacks from the Jetta's interior is the intangible feeling of sacrificed economy; anyone drawn to a Mini Cooper for its upscale and solid construction will find, with few exceptions, plenty to like in the inside of a Beetle.
The trim on the inside of the doors and much of the flat dashboard is painted to match the exterior color. VW also included in this redesign a second, smaller glove box that fans of the original Beetle, (no, the original one) will find familiar. Anthophobes can also take comfort; the Beetle no longer comes with a flower vase built into the dash.
The front seats are roomy, comfortable and thickly bolstered. The rear seats do exist, but there are only two of them and they don't provide much legroom for taller passengers. Behind the rear seats is a relatively spacious trunk that can hold 15.4 cubic feet of stuff, or about the same as Volkswagen's Golf.
In addition to the cramped rear seats, there were other practical oddities to the Beetle's interior. The optional navigation system's small screen and simpleton's interface imply it was chosen for economics over function.
The rearview mirror is comically small, an unfortunate amount of wind noise cuts through the frameless doors when you're on the freeway and the rear passenger windows don't open or vent, causing the wind to buffet around the cabin like a spooked cat when you have the front windows down.
The highlight of the loaded, $25,965 Beetle 2.5 I tested was the tinted panorama glass roof that slides open about a foot. As with the glass roof on Volkswagen's Touareg that I tested this year, this one swathes the cabin in natural light, an appreciable feature in a sun-baked climate such as Los Angeles.
Other options included for that amount of coin were a bass-happy Fender audio system, keyless entry and push-button start, heated leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and a six-speed automatic transmission. A final highlight was the delightfully tactile steering wheel featuring a flat bottom and steering wheel mounted controls.
Powering the Beetle 2.5 is, not surprisingly, a 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine that Volkswagen uses in a variety of its vehicles. Its 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque are routed to the front wheels by way of a five-speed manual transmission or the optional six-speed automatic.
The Beetle 2.5 with the automatic is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. In 250 miles of testing, I averaged 24 mpg.
Beetle drivers looking for some power have the Turbo engine as an option. Ripped from the Golf GTI, this unit makes 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while VW's trick six-speed, dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters is a $1,100 option. The turbo model also adds the Golf's multilink sport suspension in the rear, alloy wheels, dual exhaust, a rear spoiler and fog lights for a $4,400 premium over the Beetle 2.5.
Both engines are refined and plenty strong for a car this size once they're high into their acceleration. But each is plagued with a lack of the low-end power that you want when passing or entering onramps.
Keeping the respective automatic transmissions in Sport mode is emerging as the de facto way to wring any kind of encouraging acceleration out of all Volkswagens, not just this Beetle.
Otherwise, either Beetle handles what you throw at it without drama or complaint, though I have a sneaking suspicion that your friend in the mechanically identical Golf is going to pull ahead of you when the roads gets particularly windy.
So although your Golf-driving buddy may beat you to your destination, you'll probably get more looks when you arrive. How guys interpret those looks is up to them.
Some may see a design with some residual stigma left over from the previous version. But those who can look past that will find the 2012 Beetle worth their while.