After 13 years as a New Beetle, the iconic VW bug goes back to being just a Beetle. It does this in a big way, with a clean-sheet redesign that makes it new again. It's the new Beetle, not a New Beetle.
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle jumps like a bug on a skillet from its heritage. It's 7.3 inches longer, 0.5 inches lower, and 3.3 inches wider than the 2010 New Beetle, last one made. The stretch morphs it into a real car, not so much a cute little thing. It's less round. It looks good with more dynamic proportions. It's still unmistakably VW Beetle.
The coefficient of drag, 0.37, is surprisingly good, although not near the lower (by 2 inches) Honda Civic, at 0.315, or the smaller Ford Fiesta at 0.33. But even the taller New Beetle made 0.38 (the original Beetle was 0.48).
The expanded exterior makes the four-seat interior roomier. Interior volume has grown by 5 percent, from 81 to 85 cubic feet. The roof is lower, but because it's also longer, there's a bit more rear headroom. In the front, it gains 1.9 inches in legroom and 2.5 inches in shoulder room, making the 2012 Beetle feel less like a capsule.
The front legroom is 0.7 inches more than that in the all-new 2012 Toyota Yaris, but the Beetle's rear seat has just 31.4 inches of legroom, which is 1.9 inches less than the Yaris, on a wheelbase that's 1.1 inches longer.
The trunk of the 2012 Beetle is spacious at 15.4 cubic feet. With the rear seat folded it's nearly 30 cubic feet, and the high-swinging hatchback enables giant things to fit inside, making the Beetle handy for hauling.
The seats and trim are neat but not fancy. The bucket seats are clean, simple, and comfortable, with excellent bolstering.
Instrumentation is so clean it's memorable for its rarity. In the center of the big clear speedometer there's a multi-function digital display, accessed with a flick of the driver's right thumb, scrolling a small wheel on the steering wheel. All you need to know is right there, almost automatically without thinking or searching for it. It makes for safe driving!
The 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, with an iron block and double overhead cams, is carried over from the New Beetle, but the horsepower increases by 20, to 170 hp. Torque increases by seven foot-pounds, to 177 foot-pounds at 4250 rpm. It's mated to a standard 5-speed manual gearbox, or optional 6-speed automatic transmission that didn't wow us. We've driven a VW Golf with that 5-speed manual transmission, which is satisfying and gives the car pep from 0 to 60. We recommend the manual.
Acceleration in the 2.5L is adequate, and 75 mph on the freeway is smooth and mostly effortless. The 6-speed manual automatic transmission isn't as much fun as the manual, especially with this engine. The automatic's side-to-side semi-manual shifting using the lever at the floor was better than nothing, but not very racy.
A 2.0-liter Turbo model is also available that comes with a 6-speed manual transmission and a different rear suspension. The turbocharged engine makes 207 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque at a low 1700 rpm, and it gets about the same fuel mileage although on high-test gas. It's hot, with acceleration not far behind a Mini Cooper S.
If you want jaw-stretching torque and fuel mileage on the far side of 40 mpg, there's the TDI, coming in summer 2012 as a 2013 model. It's a 2.0-liter turbodiesel with direct injection, making 236 pound-feet of torque. The engine has been used successfully for some time in the Golf and Jetta TDI.
The chassis is rigid and the body solid, with subframes front and rear, supporting the suspension. The rear uses a torsion beam, although the Beetle Turbo uses a more sophisticated multi-link, for the higher threshold of cornering. The freeway ride in the Beetle doesn't suffer for the torsion beam. It's comfortable and consistent. Potholes don't hurt, but rough pavement can make the rear end of the car want to dance.
Inches matter, when you're trying to change a circle into an oval. That's how the silhouette of the Beetle changes, by making it 7.3 inches longer, 3.3 inches wider, and 0.5 inches lower. The new shape is more dynamic and muscular; gone is the cuteness, although not the identity. Its coefficient of drag is 0.37, a good number that still lags behind some competitors, and reveals the legacy of a round bug. The sleek 2012 Honda Civic, for example, comes in at 0.315.
Looking head-on at the new Beetle, it's wide and chubby enough that the lines are actually horizontal. A narrow black mouth under the bumper spans the face like a pinched grin, under perky headlamps like eyes, and a hood seam that seems to define a wide nose, having one chrome nostril with VW in it.
At profile, the good-looking roofline is like a stylish tight arc, with roadster lines tracing to a 2005 concept car called the Ragster, that had the look of a chopped-top hot rod.
The wheel cutouts are perfect semi-circles dropping down toward the pavement. In contrast to the smooth curves of sheetmetal everywhere else, the fender flares have squared edges, offering contrasting definition to the shape.
The Beetle might be called a hatchback. The rear gate is massive. You could probably load a refrigerator in there. No compromises to the car's shape, for the utility of cargo loading. When the hatch is closed, it flows invisibly into the car's roundness.
We take pleasue in saying that every control is easy to access and understand, making driving a joy because you can think about driving. It's like the old bug, in a welcome way.
There's a decent amount of room inside the 2012 Beetle, 85 cubic feet. Rear headroom, and front legroom and shoulder room is more than that in the New Beetle, so it doesn't feel so much like a capsule. But being a capsule is part of what a VW is all about, and it's not all lost.
Front legroom is 0.7 inches more than the all-new Toyota Yaris, and with the Beetle's standard tilt-telescope steering wheel, drivers of all sizes can fit with no problem.
The two doors are wide (note: there is no four-door Beetle), and the front seats flop forward easily, so access to the rear seat is good. But it's not so roomy in the rear, with just 31.4 inches of legroom, which is 1.9 inches less than in the Yaris, despite the Beetle being nearly 14 inches longer. However, that excess length is mostly overhang; the Beetle wheelbase is only 1.1 inches longer than the Yaris.
The 2012 Beetle trunk has grown to a spacious 15.4 cubic feet, a whopping increase of 27 percent over the New Beetle; and with the 60/40 rear seat folded, there's a vast 29.9 cubic feet behind the front seats. The rear trunk lid is like a hatchback or wide liftgate, so giant things can fit inside. We were astounded when our Beetle swallowed three huge boxes from Harbor Freight. With the dear old VW bug, there would have been no way, for even one of them.
There's good visibility out the front and rear, even with the low roof and high beltline. And it's a quiet ride. That five-cylinder engine is smooth and more silent than a four-cylinder.
Volkswagen says that some of the interior colors and shapes harken back to the original Beetle. For example the extra glovebox, called the kaeferfach or Beetle bin. For sure the simplicity of the instrument panel harkens back, which is good.
Volkswagen does gauges well, and the Beetle's are super clean. There's a big speedometer in the center, insanely optimistic at 160 mph, with organic white numbers and red needles. There's a small tach to the left of the speedo, balanced on the right by a big analog fuel gauge. The TDI will have an additional instrument pod with oil temperature, turbo boost, and a stopwatch.
In the center of the speedo there's a multi-function digital display, accessed with a flick of the driver's right thumb, scrolling a small wheel on the steering wheel. Everything you need to know is right there, almost automatically without thinking or searching for it. It makes for safe driving!
The 2.5L Beetle radio is the best! A big screen tells you what's playing. Big dials and buttons are easy to reach, and you can spin through the many satellite stations. You can get in this car for a first time and easily tune the radio. We're guessing that we can only do that with maybe one out of every three or four cars we test nowadays. We used to blame this complexity on German thinking, but the Beetle disproves that.
However, the Sunroof model comes with a touch-screen radio. We didn't get to try it, but we can't imagine how a touch-screen radio could be better than the basic one with knobs and dials, as well as a big informational screen you just look at, and don't have to figure out and don't have to make decisions about while you're driving, and don't have to touch.
A navigation system is available, but a rearview camera is not available for the Beetle.
The seats and trim are neat but nothing fancy and no tricks, clean and simple, comfortable bucket seats with excellent bolstering.
In the small convenience department, there's a big flat cubby on the dash, a small cubby forward of the shift lever, and a coin cubby and shallow console under the flip-up armrest between the seats. Two cupholders, and door pockets with elastic straps that are a bit lame.
The 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, transversely mounted, cast-iron block, is carried over from the New Beetle, but horsepower has increased from 150 to 170, and torque from 170 to 177 foot-pounds at 4250 rpm. It's mated to a 5-speed manual transmission or 6-speed automatic with a manual mode.
Acceleration performance is adequate, and 75 mph on the freeway is smooth and mostly effortless.
We were not wowed by the automatic transmission, whose side-to-side shifting with the lever at the floor was better than nothing, but won't inspire boy racers. We didn't get to test a Beetle with the manual transmission, but we have driven a VW Golf with that same transmission, and besides being satisfying, it picks up the car's acceleration, particularly from 0 to 60.
If you want killer torque, coming in summer 2012 as a 2013 model is the Beetle TDI, a 2.0-liter turbodiesel with direct injection, making 236 pound-feet of torque. The engine is proven, as used in the Jetta and Golf TDI. It comes either with a manual transmission or VW's double-clutch DSG automatic manual transmission. The TDI will deliver the most fuel mileage by far.
For the best fuel mileage in your 2.5L, the manual transmission is EPA-rated higher than the automatic, at 22 City/31 Highway, vs. 22/29 mpg for the automatic. We landed in the middle, at 24.5 mpg with the automatic, running about 200 miles on both the freeway and around-town.
As with any new design today, the chassis is rigid and the body solid, with subframes front and rear, supporting the suspension. The same torsion beam rear suspension as the old New Beetle and the recently redesigned Jetta is used, and Volkswagen does a good job with this technology that some might call ancient. However, the Beetle Turbo uses a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, for the higher threshold of cornering that will be expected of it.
The freeway ride in the Beetle doesn't suffer for the torsion beam. It's comfortable and consistent. Potholes don't hurt, but rough pavement can make the rear end of the car want to dance.
Most new cars are going to electric power steering nowadays, because it's less of a drag on the system and the cornering is crisper; but the Beetle uses hydraulic assist for its rack and pinion, and this detracts some from the precision. The Beetle has limitations in the twisties, although it stays with you in moderation. However, if sporty handling is what you want, the Beetle Turbo and Golf both use multi-link rear suspension and electric power rack-and-pinion steering. Whether hydraulic or electric power steering, the Beetle's ratio is the same tight 16.3:1.
The 2.0-liter turbo with the DSG transmission is the hot rod, but it's not nearly as hot as the Golf R with its pumped-up horsepower and all-wheel drive (and $10k higher cost). It's a boost thing, and balance thing. The Beetle Turbo is heavier, doesn't handle as well, and its DSG is programmed relatively wish-washy. But that doesn't mean it's still not a lot sportier than the 2.5L Beetle, and more fun, if you need snappier acceleration. If what you want first is a Beetle and then sport, the Beetle 2.0T works.
The redesigned 2012 Beetle wins in almost every area. It's smooth, quiet, comfortable, economical, and fast enough to flow with all traffic. Instrumentation and controls are beautifully simple. Rear legroom is tight, but access is easy. The hatchback and fold-down rear seats create huge cargo space. For performance there's the Beetle Turbo, and for fuel mileage the 2013 Beetle TDI, a turbodiesel.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Portland, Oregon.