Every couple of years, somebody releases a study claiming to show that the average palate can’t differentiate between a good red wine and a cheap red wine, a good red wine and a good white wine, or a good red wine and a tumbler-full of Thunderbird mixed with antifreeze and raw gasoline. Survey says: it’s all the same juice, right?
Previously, amidst the vineyards of the Napa Valley, EIC Pro Tempore / sommelier Jack Baruth decanted a few forced-induction Germanic vintages and ran us through the tasting notes. He left one machine off – the turbocharged version of VW’s Beetle. So what do we think: GTI wine in a rotund bocksbetuel?
Aside from the “VW Candy” of the not-yet-available-here seventh-generation GTI and Scirocco R, the cars most prominently featured at the driving event were the Beetle GSRs. A yellow and black painted homage to a mildly juiced up 1970s Bug, the “Gelb-Schwarzer-Renner” boasts cosmetic enhancements and exactly no extra power. It also looks like Bumblebee guy off the Simpsons.
Stepping past Señor No Es Bueno brought me to my plain black test vehicle, a six-speed manual. For a work-through of all the little exterior details that make up the new-for-2012 bug, please see Sajeev Mehta’s excellent dissection here.
Briefly, I think this thing looks a wee bit badass, all glittering carapace and chunky 18” alloys. The idea of retro-design might not appeal to everyone, but there’s a little extra flavour here, and it’s done right. The slightly extended, stretched-out looks of the Beetle give it genuine road presence: it’s now a car, not a clutch-purse.
For 2014, all Beetles with the 2.0L Turbo get the R-Line, VW’s package of aerodynamic-look fascias, a rear spoiler, and those big rims; the car also changes its name from Beetle Turbo to Beetle R-Line, what with the base engine now a snail-fed 1.8. Power is slightly up by a who-cares extra 10 for a total of 210hp.
Inside, this mid-trim tester came with a carbon-fibre-look dash, silver-ringed instrument binnacle and dashboard gauge pod. The cloth seats had decent bolstering, and I liked the patterning. Actually, given the excellent headroom and usable back seats, I like the surroundings in here better than the current GTI.
As soon as I rolled off the line, I changed my mind. It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with the boosted Beetle, it’s just that all the dynamics are about 10% less good than the GTI. The accelerator doesn’t seem to react as quickly. There’s more body roll. The seating position is just a little too high. The steering is a bit lighter, a bit looser, and a little more numb.
But 90% GTI is still a passing grade on anyone’s report-card, unless you’re a mechanic. Stirring up the Beetle’s torquey two-litre via the six-speed shifter, I flung the little car down the winding canyon roads VW had mapped out. These were excellent, and relatively traffic free. The Bug hopped through the bends like a flea down the wrinkle of a Shar-pei.
That’s a flea with combat boots, however. You can get ridiculous 19”s on the top-spec R-Line Beetle, but even these 18”s are a little too heavy for backroads carving. Those fat 5-spokes have a considerable amount of mass cast into them – hazarding a guess, I’d say somewhere in the mid 30 pound range.
Bah hum-bug. Give me a set of forged 17”s any day with proper offset to clear the brakes. Last month I dropped by HPA out here in BC – the lunatics who boosted one of the original New Beetles into the high 400hp range – and they set all their 200mph-rated big-brake kits to fit behind 18”s. The R-Line brakes are only just acceptable, and shouldn’t require the diameter upgrade.
Leaving the heavy footwear aside, the turbo’d Beetle can actually be a lot of fun. After slowing for some construction, I followed a touring sportbike through a series of winding curves – he was probably going 20%, I was going more like 80% – and the Vee-Dub seemed to find some flow. Hammering through these switchback corners in a rear-wheel-drive 5.0 ‘Stang (which isn’t far off in terms of a price comparison) and a wrong move would put you off the road and embedded straight into the terroir. The Bug was a bit of a rhythmic challenge, but the rewards were there.
If the incentives were right, if the price-tag on this car got low enough, if some dealer was motivated to move a narrow-appeal manual-transmission unit off the lot… hmm. I’m thinking reflash & tune, maybe some beefier sways, bit of a mild drop in height perhaps – there’s some potential here. It’s not as sharp a tool as the GTI, but sometimes, using the not-quite-best instrument has an appeal all its own. There’s a bit of Herbie potential here and-
Sweet mother of pearl: have I just advised that somebody void the warranty on a Volkswagen product by modifying it? I gotta call Saul!
VW Provided the cars tested, flights and accomodation.
As-tested, the car stickered at $27,595 (US)