IF YOU WERE in any doubt that the Volkswagen Beetle is all about style and looks, consider this. When I snapped a few Instagram images during my test drive of the latest Bug, I got more “likes” more quickly than for any other car I've posted. In other words, that's far more than for such exotica as the McLaren MP4-12C, the Maserati GranTurismo or even the Lamborghini Aventador.
The Beetle, of course, is a much-loved icon, no matter that the first, rear-engined iteration more properly called the Type 1 was hopelessly outdated long before production in Germany was finally wound up in 1978 (amazingly, it continued to be built in Mexico until 2003). That makes it a little better than the second-generation, front-engined New Beetle, which was simply hopeless.
Like Herbie, the Vee-Dub's Disney incarnation, this late-'90s pastiche was cute and “friendly”, which is doubtless why, in a touch that would have embarrassed even Austin Powers, VW felt inspired to fit a plastic flower and vase to its dashboard. And by the time the last one rolled off the line in 2011, it had aged horribly too. Based on the platform of the long-superseded Golf Mark 4, sluggish and dynamically compromised – though admittedly still treasured by a loyal coterie made up largely of young ladies and hairdressers – the New Beetle was a car no serious enthusiast would go anywhere near.
Enter, then, the third VW Beetle, no longer dubbed “New” though launched late last year. Sharing the same underpinnings as the current Scirocco coupe, and sleeker, lower, wider and visibly more aggressive than the outgoing Bug, it has a chopped-down, retro look that derives from its narrower glass area and more closely resembles the profile of the original VW. Metrosexual in appearance compared with its rather more “girlie” predecessor, this newer car should appeal to younger, style-conscious males, while in no way alienating the Beetle's existing demographic (who among other things will be delighted by the Bi-xenon/LED headlights that from a distance look like cartoon eyes).
Yet finessing the styling would have been in vain had the engineers not paid serious attention to the new car's internals, which have benefitted hugely from the wide range and general excellence of options available from VW's corporate parts bin. While the Beetle's base petrol engine is a mildly turbocharged 1.2-litre that delivers 105bhp, the power unit of choice is undoubtedly the cracking 1.4 TSI, as fitted to our 1.4 GT test car, which serves up a remarkably lusty 158 horses and an equally respectable 240Nm of torque at revolutions above 1,500. Fitted with both a supercharger and a turbocharger that operate in sequence, the motor, which was voted runner-up in the 2012 International Engine of the Year Awards and also topped the 1-1.4-litre category, offers the performance of a 2-litre with the frugality of a much smaller unit. Moreover, its 1,390cc capacity comfortably slots it into the lowest tax bracket in markets where such considerations apply.
While five transmissions are available across the Beetle range, Asian buyers can expect the 1.4 TSI unit to be coupled with a seven-speed DSG (double-clutch) set-up, and judging from my experience of it with this test car as well as on several Audis, it's definitely the gearbox of choice, giving lightning changes whether in automatic or manual mode and serving up the ideal ratio in almost every situation. In spite of the supercharger, the Beetle GT does need a bit of a kick to get it going at low speeds, and this is where rapid downshifting using the wheel-mounted paddles comes into its own. After that it's plain sailing, the brisk 0-100km/h acceleration time of a little over eight seconds being more than acceptable for a car of this segment.
The chassis, too, is a big improvement, the revised Macpherson struts at the front and a torsion-beam arrangement at the rear giving handling that's decently predictable, though obviously tempered by the inevitable understeer that comes with front-wheel drive. Although ride on the GT's 10-spoke, 17-inch alloys is firm, it's not uncomfortably so, and the electro-mechanical steering is direct and precise if somewhat on the heavy side. And while I doubt the dynamics are anything like as sharp or refined as with VW's recently launched, seventh-generation Golf, which may well turn out to be the gold standard for current small saloon cars, the Beetle is nonetheless sufficiently well fettled that owners won't feel they're making major sacrifices in terms of driveability or enjoyment.
In any case – and however much the VW people would like to claim otherwise – the Bug has long been a statement much more of style than of substance, and in this key respect the new model doesn't disappoint those looking for a ride that's chic as well as reasonably capable. The Beetle's optional Design interior package features retro-style body-colour trim on the fascia, door caps and even the small and chunky steering wheel, and to complete the old-school illusion there's also a passenger-side glove box that's just big enough to hold, well, a pair of gloves (more usefully, this is complemented by a storage bin in the footwell). There's a brace of narrow door pockets, too, though these, like the glove box, are fitted more in homage than for any practical purposes.
The main instrument panel features a central speedo – analogue, naturally – calibrated up to an improbable 260km/h (a speed I doubt I'd ever even consider reaching in a Beetle, even if it were possible). It's flanked by a tachometer and a fuel gauge, the latter being among the biggest I've ever seen, while on the 1.4 GT there's also a central “Sport” binnacle above the dash that houses three additional instruments: oil temperature, turbo boost, and a stopwatch with analogue and digital readouts. Seats on the test car, which are strikingly upholstered in black and red leather, are comfortable and supportive, though as room in the back is limited the Beetle is strictly a fourpassenger car, two of which should ideally be no taller than average-sized. There's a nice big panorama roof, too, though owing to the curvature the glass panel only retracts halfway. And in a further nod to the '60s, audio options include a Fender soundpack, with ambient lighting around the speakers, as well as the famous guitar-maker's logo on the door-mounted tweeters.
As to the ownership proposition, it should be stated at the outset that in almost every area – sophistication, refinement, space, value for money – this latest Beetle is eclipsed by several other current cars, some of which are close relatives from the VW Group itself. But with a demographic that's far more concerned with image than practicality, does that really matter?
I'd reckon not at all, for this is a car what, whatever its merits or demerits, has that rare ability to put a smile on everyone's face, whether they're riding in it or simply watching it come down the road. Indeed – and in spite of its shortcomings and my own misgivings – I find the Beetle so fun and inviting that all I want to do is jump back in and drive it. So much so that when the much-anticipated convertible makes its Asian debut a few months from now, I may just need to be physically restrained.