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2006 Volkswagen New Beetle Review

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2006 Volkwagen New Beetle

An Iconic Pretender
By Steve Purdy

The incessant product buzz at the North American International Auto Show in 1994 centered on the concept car from Volkswagen that redefined the classic Beetle. The overall shape and the dash-mounted bud vase, though, were about the only elements that were like the original. After all, the original was an air-cooled boxer 4-cylinder, rear-engine people’s car, built as simply and dependably as possible to be sold cheaply. The New Beetle was a transverse mounted front-engine, water-cooled, inline-four, nicely trimmed, fully featured and priced well above the bottom feeders. It was a hit at the show and still a hit when it came to market in 1998.

The original Beetle was an icon, to be sure. It was quirky, functional and enduring. Iconic design, by its nature, usually engenders some measure of controversy, and the Beetle did. After all, if everyone likes a design it’s likely to be too ‘white-bread’ and therefore not iconic. I do not recall hearing anyone criticize the New Beetle concept at the ’94 auto show and, although it merely hints at the original, it has turned out to be a universally popular design. It could only pretend to be the Beetle. Hence, I suppose, the necessary moniker “New” Beetle.

I recall the first production New Beetle I saw on the freeway near downtown Detroit. From a distance it had the profile of a Porsche. More than just cute, it was charming and classic in design and execution. Now in its eighth model year, the New Beetle has been freshened a bit with a new engine and it still looks cool. After spending a week with a nice little silver one, however, I’m wondering how much longer it can last.

My first impression was of driving a small truck, partly because of the great distance from the generous driver’s position to the base of the windshield. The massively broad dash combines with the slope of the bonnet to make it difficult to see where the front ends. I’m a fellow of notable girth but there was room to spare in the cockpit. That truck-like feeling dissipated quickly, though, as I got acclimated to driving the car. Having had considerable experience with the original Beetle I can attest that they are very different cars. The new one has virtually none of the quirkiness that we loved in the old one.

The New Beetle is on the respected Golf platform. With independent suspension front and rear the ride and handling are as competent and sporty as we would expect from that base car. It was a bit harsh, though, on our notorious railroad crossing where we regularly test suspension dynamics. It is certainly one of the harshest performers we’ve had recently on that test. Otherwise I found it a fine ride.

Performance was good. On hard acceleration it was not buzzy or busy. The 2.5-litre 5-cylinder, multi-valve, 150-horsepower engine, new for 2006, was smooth and got me up to speed and onto the freeway with time, speed and power to spare. The 170 lb.ft. of torque was evident through the basic 5-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission. The quick-shifting 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automatic stick shift, one of the best in the industry, is available.

Interior design, while interesting to look at, is just a hint at the abovementioned quirkiness. Attractive round shapes and good quality materials make the inside of the New Beetle a pleasant place to spend time. I found some of the controls to be a bit awkward, particularly the power window and mirror controls mounted in the door.

My test car came during a week with lots of rain, ice and snow. Salted roads make for sloppy driving and ill-tempered windshield wipers don’t help. The wipers on my car tended to stop and start according to some plan of their own, not by my commands. They had a mind of their own, as my mother would say.

Packing camera gear and luggage to cover the Detroit auto show pretty much filled the cargo area and most of the back seat. The rear hatch needed a good slam to close fully. If it’s spatial efficiency you’re after you might want to consider the square-backed Golf, but the New Beetle is adequate for most purposes.

And speaking of packaging, that engine is packed very nicely into the front. It is designed to contribute to excellent crashworthiness as well. The New Beetle has four-wheel disc brakes, stability control, lots of air bags front and side, and active front head restraints – a very safe vehicle for its class.

The New Beetle comes with either this new 5-cylinder engine or, for about $1200 more, the super-efficient TDI turbo-diesel. Fuel mileage for the gasoline-engine car is rated at 31 highway and 22 city. The diesel is 44/37. With a 14.5-gallon tank it has an admirable cruising range with either power source.

Warranty coverage is 4 years/50,000 miles and 5 years/60,000 miles on the powertrain. A 12-year unlimited mileage plan covers body rust through.

Prices for the New Beetle start at $17,180, the convertible $22,120. Standard on both are 16-inch all-weather tires on alloy wheels and full-size spare; air conditioning; cruise control; in-dash single CD player/radio with MP3 format capability, satellite radio preparation, 6 speakers, control capability for CD changer; ABS, Anti-Slip Regulation (traction control) and Engine Braking Assist to prevent compression-induced skidding in slippery conditions; 5-speed manual transmission.

Cute, fun and efficient, now nine model years old, the New Beetle is well equipped and a good buy, in my book. The convertible is pricier but still a bargain as convertibles go. Take a look and a test drive. But don’t expect it to resemble the old Beetle in anything but ambiance.