Can a chick car ever shed its label?
Volkswagen is banking it can when it comes to its new Beetle. The last version - dubbed the "New Beetle" - came out in 1998 and it was clearly a chick car complete with a flower vase and dome-shaped roof.
But designers returned to the original Beetle's rich past, dating back to 1938, to dump that chick car image and replace it with a more masculine look and feel for 2012. They've succeeded. Sure, it's still as cute as a bug, but there are enough changes to make guys do a double take.
Like Andreas from Austria. He jumped off his sightseeing tour bus through the streets of Berlin to get a closer glimpse of the iconic Beetle. He's nostalgic about the Bug because his father owned three as a child. "I like the style. It's closer to the original than the New Beetle."
Hendrik from Stuttgart agrees. "I like it because it looks like a Porsche car as far as the fashion, the look, the extension is concerned. It looks extremely good."
The 2012 Beetle, which VW calls the 21st Century Beetle, is 84 mm wider, 12 mm lower and 152 mm longer than its predecessor. Gone are the bud vase and the bubble top has been replaced by a flatter, lower roof and a longer hood. The result is a more spacious cabin.
Inside, the Beetle seats four. And even adults can ride in the rear without feeling squashed. The rear seat space has grown; if you're less than six feet tall you'll have no trouble riding in the rear. Those taller might be tight on head- and legroom. Getting in and out of the two side doors is tricky, but a grab handle on the B pillars helps.
The cargo space has increased, too; there's an impressive 436 litres of room, which can accommodate golf or grocery bags. Drop the 50/50-split folding rear seats and you'll have 850 litres of cargo volume to play with. The opening to access the trunk is larger, too, which makes it easier to load and unload groceries as well. Bag hooks on the walls of the cargo area also keep grocery bags in place while driving.
The interior is surprisingly upscale - resembling a Jetta. As a tribute to the original Beetle, the dash is painted in body colour, adding a youthful and contemporary feel to the cabin.
My tester is a top-trim Sportline, which gets a carbon look inside as well as sports seats with lumbar support; a three-spoke, leather-trimmed steering wheel with black painted accents; door sill plates, and pedals in aluminum look.
The car also has an extra glove box integrated into the front fascia whose lid folds upward; the standard glove box opens downward.
Don't worry, girls, there are still enough feminine touches so you won't be alienated - including an optional ambient lighting system that lets you change the lights on the door trim panels and door-mounted loudspeakers from red, white, or blue by simply turning a tiny wheel left of the steering column.
For now, two engines are available: a 170-horsepower, 2.5-litre, five-cylinder gas engine and a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder TSI turbocharged gas engine. A 140-horsepower, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, TDI clean diesel comes out next year.
The 2.5-litre engines come with a five-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic, while the 2.0-litre gets a six-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic direct shift gearbox (DSG) dual-clutch transmission, which is on my 2.0 TSI tester. It delivers 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque.
The drive isn't the sportiest, not even with the turbo engine. It can't compete with the agility and go-kart handling of a Mini. But the turbo does provide plenty of passing power on the road. The steering is tight; the handling responsive. It's a comfortable, smooth ride. And the DSG transmission is excellent, one of the best on the markets.
There are three trims available: the base Comfortline comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear shift knob and hand brake lever. The price starts at $21,975, which is nearly $2,200 less than the 2010 version (no 2011 model is available).
The mid trim, dubbed Highline ($24,225), adds keyless access with a start/stop button, leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels and an eight-way manual driver and six-way passenger seat.
The top Sportline trim gets 18-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers, dual exhaust, leather seats, a rear spoiler and sport suspension. But the price is high - starting at $29,025. Once you add a Technology package ($1,290), a Connectivity package ($675) and a panoramic sunroof ($1,400), which has an 80 per cent larger glass area than the previous model, you'll easy hit north of $35,000 - a bit pricey for a Bug. So you might want to stick with a base model or one of the 600 limited-edition trims dubbed Premier ($24,475) and Premier+ ($27,975) - these models will go on sale first this fall.
Whichever trim you choose you can bet it won't only be chicks at the wheel any more - you'll likely see more guys driving the 21st Century Beetle.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle
Type: Four-passenger, three-door hatchback
Engine: turbocharged and intercooled, DOHC, 2.0-litre inline-four and DOHC 2.5-litre inline-five
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/207 lb-ft for four; 170 hp/177 lb-ft for five
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, six-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode, five- or six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.5 city/7.1 highway for 2.5L; regular gas; 9.9 city/ 6.5 highway for 2.0T; premium gas recommended
Alternatives: Fiat 500, Mini Cooper, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2