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car review

2012 VW Beetle

Volkswagen has enjoyed such a string of success lately, well, it's enough to leave expert critics such as yours truly scratching our heads and wondering how on earth we could get things so wrong.

We are, after all, the brilliant geniuses of the automotive press – a group that lately just won't cut VW a break. But what do we know? The buying public is in love with Volkswagen: in Canada, sales were up 15.9 per cent in 2011, largely on the back of the roaring success called the VW Jetta.

And yet, the newly redesigned 2011 Volkswagen Jetta last year was ranked last among the 11 small sedans that have been tested by Consumer Reports. "The new Jetta is unimpressive," says David Champion, the magazine's testing director. I'm in agreement.

Consumer Reports also weighed in on the 2012 Passat. "Volkswagen has made the redesigned Passat surprisingly similar to the Camry, but with so-so results," says Champion, of the new mid-size sedan which has "grown larger and softer." I cannot disagree.

Ah, hum, so much for the experts. Last year, VW sold 26,749 Jettas, making 2011 the most successful year ever for a compact car introduced to Canadian drivers since 1980. Passat sales in December were up 87 per cent. The 2012 Passat looks like another hit, despite the stunningly brilliant insights and observations of the likes of Champion and me.

What's a critic to do? Weigh in on the 2012 VW Beetle, of course.

I'm not going to throw out any bunk about this Beetle being a throwback to the original, a nostalgic new take on a car rich with memories for older Boomers and their parents. This new Beetle – sleeker, designed to appeal more to men than the outgoing Bug – is not a throwback and it's not cheap and cheerful, either. Starting price: $21,975.

VW types have been tripping over their tongues trying to convince you and me that the 2012 Bug is not a chick car, as was the last one. It's not the latest "People's Car" either – not along the lines of the original, an air-cooled, rear-engine ride of which some 21 million were sold. The only Beetle-ness we have here in 2012 is a shape vaguely reminiscent of the original. And a name.

But let's be honest: This 2012 Beetle is some 13 cm longer and 7.0 cm wider, not to mention about 1.0 cm lower than the old "New" Beetle. This is not a Bug, but a mainstream coupe. As Dan Neil notes in The Wall Street Journal, this is "The Man Beetle." Except he adds, "The Man Beetle? That takes additional suspension of disbelief …The Man Beetle notion is a marketing contrivance to broaden the car's appeal."

After a week in a really well-equipped 2012 Bug, I have to say I kinda like the thing.

But I like it not as a descendent of the Love Bug, but as an alternative to something along the lines of a Mini Cooper – only with more cabin room and, even in the least expensive version, pretty decent power (170 hp from the VW's 2.5-litre five-cylinder).

The base Mini, listed for $23,950, has a pretty wimpy 1.6-litre four-banger (121 hp). Yes, the Bug of 2012 is more muscular than the Mini. What of the $28,950 Cooper S? Its turbocharged four-banger puts out 181 hp, versus the 200-hp turbo four (2.0 litres) in the top-of-the-line Beetle TSI ($29,950). Both VW engines can be had with a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, though the very most basic car starts with an unimpressive five-speed manual.

The turbo Bug is mostly a Golf GTI, right down to its rear multi-link suspension and 0-100 km/h time of about 7.0 seconds. This is the one you want, but the one most of you will buy is something along the lines of the Premiere ($24,475).

It's possible to load up your Beetle with enough extras to send the final price well into the $30,000s: Panoramic sunroof ($1,400), Technology Package ($1,290), Connectivity Package ($675), DSG transmission ($1,400). Whatever you order, the interior has a dash somewhat reminiscent of the original, though this one is made of body-coloured plastic versus tin back in the '50s and '60s. The big glove box is also a throwback.

Much of the rest in the cabin looks like a collection of parts shared with the Jetta and other VW models. I like the available Fender audio, the expansive and comfy seats, and all the room. Yes, the cabin feels a tad tinny, but nothing here is horribly wrong or out of place.

I will say the radio station controls are awkward to manage, requiring too many movements simply to lock in a station preset. The ride quality is not exactly stiff, but certainly firm and that seems appropriate for such a "manly" coupe. And rear-seat headroom and cargo space are both on the tight side.

Still, the rear seatbacks fold flat, which is always a good thing for anyone bringing home pre-packed furniture from Ikea. Outward visibility is pretty good, too, and given the Golf is a Top Safety Pick from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we all have good reason to judge this Bug sturdy and safe.

The thing is, if the Einstein-like critics like the 2012 Beetle, as I do, will it be as successful as the oft-panned Jetta?

2012 Volkswagen Beetle Premiere (A6)

Type: Compact coupe

Price: $26,575 (freight $1,365)

Engine: 2.5-litre, five-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/177 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.5 city/7.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mini Cooper, Scion tC, Honda Civic Si, Ford Mustang Coupe, Chevrolet Camaro Coupe, Dodge Challenger Coupe, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Kia Forte Koup, Volkswagen Golf