Review: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo

“It looks like a Porsche.”

Perhaps not the most profound words ever spoken, but directed at the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle by a burly construction worker on a break from digging a very large hole with an even larger piece of mechanized equipment, certainly music to the ears of the folks at VW HQ.

Far from an anomaly, it wasn’t the only time that I registered that exact quote during my week with the turbocharged version of the car, or in the days that followed. From my septuagenarian parents to our twentysomething video editor, the observation is clearly trending.

A sigh of relief then for the designers whose job it was to exorcize the latest Beetle of the cuteness of the animated character that was the (uppercase ‘n’) New Beetle it replaces. This was accomplished by skipping over that collection of perfectly formed arches and going back to the original VW Type 1 Bug to distill its essence, and translate that into the automotive language of the 21st century.

Outside, this meant adopting the Type 1’s long hood, flat windshield and squat roof profile, the trailing edge of latter continuing seamlessly toward the rear bumper. The rising beltline brings a touch of aggression to the equation and creates the curviest wedge-shaped car you've ever seen.

In the cabin, body-colored inserts on the retro thin-rimmed steering wheel, tops of the doors and face of the dashboard offer a look that is at once fresh and econo-classic. It’s very much like that achieved by the new Fiat 500, which, like the Beetle, is made in Mexico.

Much bigger than that car, but smaller inside than the VW Golf that it is based on, the Beetle has only four seats. The rear bench has been relieved of its hump, but endowed with a healthy amount of head if not legroom. Behind it a bigger than the New Beetle’s but smaller than the Golf’s cargo area offers 11 cubic feet of space.

Three versions of the Beetle are available: A base $20,565 five-cylinder model featuring a set of killer alloy wheels designed to look like steelies with silver hubcaps; the yet to be priced 39 mpg diesel coming this summer; and the $24,165 Turbo tested here that not only has the 200 hp four-cylinder from the VW GTI, but also a baby whale tail spoiler and optional “Turbo” graphics above the rocker panels that help lend it its People’s Porsche identity.

The Turbo can be had with either a manual or dual-clutch automatic transmission, each with six gears. In a straight line it’s pretty much just as quick as the GTI, although the seductively throaty motor does ask for a moment of patience as its turbocharger comes up to speed. Gear changes in the automatic are instantaneous and smooth on the move, even if it can be a little lumpy in stop and go traffic, as dual-clutch transmissions often are.

Despite having a shorter and wider wheelbase than the GTI, the Beetle’s ride quality is nicely balanced between city and highway and it’s a responsive handler in the turns, just a notch or two clumsier than its point-and-shoot stablemate. Some of this sensation can be chalked up to the environment created by a windshield base that’s far beyond the steering wheel and front fenders that fall quickly from view. Combined with a distant rear window, from the driver’s seat the Beetle feels like much larger car than it actually is.

Modern beat writers looking for a road trip machine will be pleased to learn that a navigation system is now available, as is a premium audio system designed by Fender, perhaps the only link to the car’s flower-power past. You’ll find no daisy appliqués on the accessories list this time around. Fuel economy of 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway is essentially the same as in the less-powerful five-cylinder car.

Still a style choice over the more affordable and practical Golf/GTI, the Beetle has, nevertheless, become a car rather than a cartoon. When her lease is up, I suspect Mimi from The Drew Carey Show will need to trade in her New Beetle for a pink Smart Fortwo in order to keep up the camp, but video editors, grandparents and construction workers are free to enjoy it without irony.

Even ones that aren’t in The Village People.


2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo

Base Price: $24,165

Type: Front-wheel-drive, 4-person, 2-door hatchback

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4

Power: 200 hp, 207 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 22 city, 30 hwy