Review: Volkswagon New Beetle Turbo S

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By, Des Toups, free-lance writer in Seattle. His car reviews have appeared in AutoWorld, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.

2002 Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S Base price: $23,400 Price as tested: $24,400 EPA mileage: 24 city/30 highway

What happens when a car that screams “Look at me!” no longer turns heads? A turbocharged tantrum. With six speeds, 180 horsepower and whirling, 17-inch Cuisinart-blade wheels, the Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S is a 200-watt jolt of in-your-face cuteness.

The $24,000 question is whether anyone is still watching. The New Beetle was a phenomenon in 1998, but the retro trend it launched has inundated the car-buying public with rolling reminders of days gone by. Sales have slid about a third, and the real hope for recapturing gotta-have-it status lies with a convertible due in the fall.

In the meantime, VW sends the 2002 Turbo S into showrooms to hold your attention. Will anyone into its calculatingly cool silhouette care one whit if its 1.8-liter engine delivers 11.6 pounds of turbo boost or none? Would any hardcore gearhead be caught dead behind the wheel of the world’s fastest parade float?

My guess is no but that doesn’t make the Turbo S anything less than the baddest, comfiest, sexiest New Beetle of them all.

The luxuries list is extensive: heated two-tone leather seats, Monsoon stereo, sunroof and fog lights inset beside the big round headlights. The juiced-up four-cylinder (the same one you’ll find in the Golf, Passat, Audi A4 and Audi TT) delivers an extra 30 horsepower over the standard New Beetle Turbo and a hearty 173 foot-pounds of torque, the muscle that actually moves the car. An extra gear makes finding that power easier. And electronic stability control steps in to keep over exuberance from becoming a really big mistake.

On one hand, it’s a lot of car and a lot of technology, much of which you won’t find in vehicles south of $30,000. On the other, it’s a very quick car that’s unlikely to hold much attraction for the go-fast set.

The good stuff first.

It’s hard not to be a fan of VW’s 1.8-liter turbos, whose flexible nature and generous torque allow a driver the luxury of being lazy with shifts. High-revving engines are lovely, but sometimes you just want to toodle to Wal-Mart without attracting the tax collectors. The VW turbo, even in its high-potency form, pulls steadily from low speeds, even in high gear. There’s a small dead spot before the turbo kicks in, useful for crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Drop the clutch at anything above 2,000 rpm, however, and watch the fireworks begin. Sixty comes up in a rush under 7 seconds, according to most tests and you’ll find yourself nailing the accelerator just to revel in that intoxicating pull and intriguing turbo whistle.

An eager partner in this commotion is the six-speed manual, the first on a VW. It’s less rubbery-feeling than other VW sticks, and the extra gear dropped into the mix means each has to cover less ground. It’s great for a flat-out run to 100 mph. In town, though, I found myself skipping gears: first, second, then sixth as I reached the speed limit.

This kind of power typically makes a front-driver such as the New Beetle pull sideways under hard acceleration, and that’s where the electronic stabilization program (ESP) steps in. Sensors compare the path of the car with the driver’s intended direction and use the brakes to gently guide the car back on course. You have only to switch it off to know how effective it is. The same technology also limits wheel spin; the Turbo S would have been treacherous during a recent snowstorm were the ESP absent.

Inside, there are few changes, chief among them the disappearance of the colored gauge lighting that so enamored New Beetle fans back in ’98. There’s lots of shiny faux aluminum, though, and the gray-and-black seats are sharp without being gaudy. Like all VWs, materials are top-notch throughout and make the car feel even more expensive than it is.

But there are annoyances, some solvable, some not.

The crisp, powerful Monsoon stereo lacks steering-wheel controls (though the real things are just a finger-length away) and in-dash CD capability (a $350 changer resides in back). And the tiny little sun visors were unable to block even Seattle’s feeble winter glare. The front seats still use a cramp-inducing twist knob to recline. There’s not enough space above the cup holders to accommodate a tall bottle of pop or water.

VW can, and should, fix most of that. But there’s also penance to be paid for that retro silhouette. The slope of the roof, for example, makes the back seat unfit for adults. And the dashboard remains as deep as your forearm and the hood is all but invisible from the driver’s seat, which makes parking the New Beetle a bit of a challenge for a new owner.

It’s unlikely that anyone attracted to the shape of the New Beetle would be deterred by the compromises inherent in its design. But I wonder how the growing ranks of hot-hatchback fans will weigh the Turbo S’s potent capabilities against its whopping price tag even VW’s own GTI 1.8T is three grand cheaper. And “slammers” the guys who lower and modify their Civics and Focuses until they’re almost unrecognizable might find that nothing they do can overcome the New Beetle’s distinctive shape.

And that shape says, “Hi. I’m a nice person,” not, “Hi. I’m a badass.”

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