The power of love is a curious thing. It makes one brand weep, another brand sing. Change a bug into a little white Dub. More than a feeling; that's the power of love. Yes, I know it's old News, but Volkswagen's Beetle still gets a lot of love. You would've thought a retro reissue of Hitler's people's car would've fallen down the same rat hole that swallowed-up the mustachioed Plymouth Prowler, Chevrolet's WTF SSR and Ford's turkey T-bird. But no. Eight years after its re-introduction into the US market, VW's self-titled "New Beetle" is still here, people still adore it, and I still don't get it.
Admittedly, I'm not gay. While I do enjoy a well-formed six-pack, and consider myself a far better interior decorator than that stuck-up Connecticut con artist, I can't understand how anyone could find VeeDub's Bauhaus Bug "cute." I reckon J Mays drew the St. Louis arch over a Kohler bathtub and called it good. All the superb detailing that gave the 60's version its cutesy-tootsie cartoon character has been replaced with generic post-modern jewelery. To my eyes, the slab-sided minimalist Beetle is about as emotionally engaging as a Braun razor. The '06 facelift offers rounder headlights, more tapered wrap-around air dams and flat-edged wheel arches. It looks like… a slightly newer Braun razor.
The Beetle's interior extends the cognitive dissonance between Herbie and Helmut. In the old rear-engined Beetle, the proximity between your head and oncoming traffic was endearing / alarming– accentuated by the fact that there really was nothing between your head and oncoming traffic. In the new front-engined Beetle, there's so much dash ahead of you it feels like you're sitting in middle of a small powerboat. Or a greenhouse. In fact, people who live in glass houses will feel right at home, and they don't need to stow thrones; the Bug's warm leatherette is deliciously comfy. Unfortunately, the New Beetle's artsy roof line renders the rear seats only slightly more accommodating than a cat carrier.
The New Beetle proves that love is at least partially blind; the overarching design theme necessitates front pillars that could hide a full-size pickup. And do. The rest of the New Beetle's black-hole-black cabin casts its magic spell over silly Buggers with three dignified gauges, an equal number of chintzy rotary knobs, a severely limited array of buttons and… that's it. In these days of voice-activated rear window blinds, who knew that an interior appealing to latter day Spartans would be considered "delightful?" Oops. I almost forgot: the link to the Bug's hippy dippy past– the in-dash flower vase– is still plastic. Dishwasher safe. Fabulous. And VW put chrome rings around the vents. How great is that?
As the Vee Dub's turbo four was a bit on the manic anemic side, and the New Beetle's engine bay can't stomach a six, and California-dreaming legislators dictated that you can't buy a diesel car in this neck of the tree-hugged woods, our press car holstered the new-for-'06 2.5-liter straight five. According to the website, this application "borrowed" the V10 Gallardo supercar's cylinder head– which is a bit like a six-year-old chess player wearing Victor Kasparov's sports jacket. Fire-up the five-pot and the Beetle's aural signature seems carefully crafted to comfort diesel wanna-be's. Clatterer though it is, the buzz ain't bad and there's nothing wrong with the way the New Beetle goes about its business. Zero to sixty takes… not that long. Passing is… entirely possible.
The New Beetle sits on the old Golf's platform. The front-wheel-drive set-up clearly favors nimble handling over ride comfort. Wrong answer. At the risk of sounding like a crashing bore, the New Beetle's suspension– independent McPherson struts (front) and independent torsion beam axle (back) with coil springs, stabilizer bars and telescopic shocks– makes the car something of a crashing bore. It's a remarkably stable corner carver, but sluggish throttle response means preparation is the better part of valor. Highway cruisers exchange rough pavement fatigue for side wind susceptibility. The manufacturer claims the New Beetle will do 126 mph, but I wouldn't like to blow through an 18-wheeler's wake at that speed.
So what makes the New Beetle so damned adorable? Its owners. While the New Beetle's driving dynamics and interior accoutrements are nothing special, the car's aggressive pricing, comprehensive unobjectionality and mid-20's mileage allow Beetle-lovers to project their adoration onto the machine without fear of contradiction. Last year, almost forty thousand consumers drove home in a new Beetle or Beetle cabriolet. That's not bad for a poorly-packaged German retromobile that critics dismissed as a passing fad. As empty nest Moms pass their Bug down to college-bound daughters, as used Beetles find new friends down market, the New Beetle is sure to generate warm fuzzies for years to come.
[Volkswagen of America provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, tax and a tank of gas.]