Brewing up a better Beetle

What is it?
It's Volkswagen's icon, of course, re-imagined again with a more contemporary look. Actually, that's only partly true, as the semi-futuristic look of the New Beetle has been ditched for a style that's decidedly retro, and closer to the 1940s original.

We've previously tested the range-topping Turbo version on our first drive in Germany, and now we've got it on the road in Canada with the base 2.5-litre engine, in Premiere+ trim. It's the more luxe of the two launch-edition models, and comes jam-packed with luxuries like a navigation system, push-button start, and a massive panoramic sunroof.

What's new?
Everything, really, but the first thing that people pick up on is its look. As if it were pressed on by a giant metal spatula, the perfectly arced roofline has been flattened across the top, pushed well back and capped by a more upright windshield. Both nose and tail are more sculpted and, as a result, the bulbous, doe-eyed look is gone.

Why the big change? While the PR bumpf suggests it's to ape the original "people's car," it's really a part of a plan to reel in a broader audience. The New Beetle, while popular in America — particularly with Gen-Xers, and women — was too niche, and wasn't especially practical. It made a great second car, but its lack of usability made it a bit player everywhere else in the world. VW's laser-sharp focus to be the number-one volume automaker, dictated that future models not be as specialized.

This also explains the car's substantial growth. The Beetle rides on the Jetta's platform, making it significantly longer and wider, and roomier on the inside; the trunk is now 100 litres larger and the rear seat will actually accommodate adults. At 5'10", I actually fit comfortably seated behind myself.

As far as motors are concerned, the Beetle carries over its 2.5-litre engine, though it makes an extra 20 hp and seven lb.-ft. of torque, like the Golf and Jetta. It can be had with a five-speed manual, or as is standard fit on Premiere and Premiere+ models, a six-speed automatic. In addition to the aforementioned 200-hp TSI turbo four, a diesel model will be available starting this fall.

How does it drive?
A lot better, that's for sure. Part of this comes down to the driving position. With a more conventional dashboard, it no longer feels as if you're seated behind an oversized desk. The rest is due to its wider stance on the road, fat tires and firm suspension that keeps the car level in bends.

Despite the engine's big size, the Beetle is not a very sporty car. Off-the-line acceleration feels a bit sluggish due to lazy throttle tip-in. On the plus side, once you're up to speed, the engine pulls strong, and the automatic is commendably smooth.

Unlike the Turbo model, all 2.5-litre Beetles have a semi-independent rear suspension and conventional hydraulic steering. While we like the thin-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel, we found there to be little feel and too much assistance at speed. Compared to a GTI we tested recently, we found the Beetle to have a busier ride over rough pavement. Nevertheless, it still feels like a true Volkswagen — solid, mature, and definitely European.

Should you buy one?
It's clear Volkswagen has put a lot of effort into making the new Beetle a more rational choice, but it remains a feel-good car you buy with your heart, rather than your head. It has more character than your average compact car despite being comparably priced, and allows you to have that retro-cool look without resorting to the pint-sized Fiat 500 or Mini Cooper. But unless you're absolutely sold on the styling, we'd probably go for a Golf, or, if you're thinking about a high-spec model like this, a GTI.

Though the Beetle betters the New Beetle in every regard, the Golf betters it just as easily. Certainly it doesn't have the visual panache, but the Golf is more practical, has a nicer cabin, drives better, is more refined and, to add insult to injury, base model for base model, it costs less. While we like what VW has done, in this case, the head still whispers louder than the heart.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle Permiere+
Base price/as-tested: $26,575 / $27,975
Type of vehicle: FWD, compact hatchback
Engine: 2.5 L, 20-valve, DOHC I-5
Power/Torque: 170 hp / 177 lb.-ft.
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy/as-tested): 9.5 / 7.1 / 10.1 L/100 km
Competition: Fiat 500, Honda Civic Coupe, Hyundai Elantra Coupe / Veloster, Kia Forte Koup, Mini Cooper, Scion tC, Volkswagen Golf

QUICK SPIN SUMMARY

PROS
Much improved driving dynamics
Visually appealing, inside and out
More practical than key rivals

CONS
Wind noise
Choppy ride on 18-inch wheels
A Golf is better