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car review

2012 Volkswagen Beetle

Kids went wild when they spotted Punch Buggies, the oh-so-cute Volkswagen New Beetle that kept these antics going through its 1998-2011 production run.

"Punch Buggy!" they'd shout and pound each other's little shoulders purple, whacking mom and dad as well if they could get away with it. "I saw it first! Punch Buggy!" Ouch.

Are kids going to feel the same way about Volkswagen's 2012 Beetle? Does this sleek shape look cartoon-ish enough to inspire childish violence? And how about those men and women who were carried away with the New Beetle's cuteness, are they going to trade up for the new, not-so-cute model?

Confusing as it may be that the new Beetle is no longer called the New Beetle – it's the old Beetle now, if not as old as the original Beetle sold in Canada up to 1978, the one some of us think of as the real Beetle, with its air-cooled rear engine – the larger identity crisis is tied to the fact the new model no longer appears to be a descendent of Herbie the Love Bug.

Volkswagen designers threw away their protractors and replaced the Beetle's trademark roundness with an elongated roof. The new car could be the love child of a Porsche Panerama, it looks so sleek.

There are definite benefits in this new shape. Shoulder room is no longer pinched as it was in the New Beetle, with the interior wider both front and rear but particularly so in the back seat.

There are improvements too in front head and legroom, though in the rear seat these important measurements remain virtually as before.

The biggest change is how you feel in the driver's seat. You no longer perch in the middle of the car, peering over a vast sweep of dashboard, wondering what might be going on to either side of the front of the car.

You're closer to a more vertical windshield, with a sense of being in control as a result of the vastly improved sight lines. In terms of driving position, this Beetle feels more like the original Beetle.

And this Volkswagen simply drives better than its New Beetle predecessor, benefitting from the technical advances of later generations of Volkswagen's Golf (on which this car is based).

It's a hoot, as we said in the real Beetle's era. Cool. The steering is sharp. You turn right now, effortlessly. Such immediacy begins the process of becoming enamoured with this ride.

While power and torque are sufficient for brisk acceleration, the automatic transmission ekes out maximal fuel efficiency by keeping the engine running at a relaxed 1,200-2,000 rpm much of the time. Good vibes, man.

They've thrown out the flower vase that characterized the New Beetle. What remains of Beetle tradition is body-color paint (Tornado Red in the case of our brilliant Beetle) brightening the interior on the dash and beneath the windows.

The flat-bottomed steering wheel signals a more modern approach in functionality. The squared-off wheel allows more room for the legs (or belly) and steers better. And the new Beetle has more usable space for the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates in current urban driving.

Two gloveboxes, both big enough to be useful, occupy the right side of the dashboard. Attractive elastic webbing encloses the door pockets, making them more useful. An open tray on top of the dash is perfect for keys and change.

Both front seats tilt and slide forward to ease entry into the rear. Once you've settled in the rear, it must be said, thoughts of sardines packed into cans come to mind, because there's just enough room for two adults with their knees and heads touching the front seats and headliner. You do enjoy more shoulder room than in the New Beetle.

As for cargo capacity, 436 litres compares well to the hatchback Golf's 410 litres. That said, the rear seats fold down to increase that capacity but they don't fold flat, so the Beetle falls short of the cargo-swallowing capability of the Golf's 1,300 litres, with only 850 litres.

Ride quality is excellent on the highway, jarring on Toronto's uglier streets. The recently-introduced Turbo model may prove to be more supple with its fully independent rear suspension replacing this car's torsion beam. Also coming for 2013 is a diesel-powered Beetle.

The range runs from the Comfortline model at $21,975, nicely equipped with heated seats and washer nozzles but not including an automatic transmission, through the $24,225 Highline and $29,025 Sportline.

Our test car, a limited edition when the 2012 Beetle was introduced, is called a Premiere Plus. It's base price: $26,575 with goodies ranging from the same 18-inch wheels as the Sportline to Fender sound and navigation.

In real Beetle days, your choice was Custom or Deluxe. Dig this, people, those days are half a century into history. Today's younger car buyers have no fond memories of the Beetle ruling the roads, many have no memories of the egg-shaped entry at all, so Volkswagen has drop-kicked nostalgia out along with the New Beetle's terminal cuteness.

This new Beetle enters as a stylish alternative to ordinary sedans. For all those who are sick of conventional hatchbacks, weary of the swarms of big-butted sedans with their stereotypical character lines swooping down to low noses, the Beetle represents a fun choice. Something different, as the original Beetle was in the era of finned American cars.

Tech specs: Volkswagen Beetle

Type: Two-door sedan

Base price: $21,975; as tested, $29,515 for Premiere-plus model ($26,750) with optional sunroof and destination/pre-delivery charges

Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, five-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft

Transmission: Six speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Natural Resources Canada rating, 9.5 city/7.1 highway; in our suburban driving, 10; regular gas

Alternatives: Mini Cooper, Fiat 500