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New Car/Review

1998 Volkswagen New Beetle

by Carey Russ


SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide

Life in a fishbowl. That's the New Beetle experience right now, and probably for the foreseeable future. Until the supply increases to meet demand, it is not a car for anyone craving anonymity, it's instant celebrity status. There is nothing on the road like the New Beetle. Other manufacturers have built radically-styled show cars for sale, but as expensive, limited-production image-leaders. Volkswagen is the first automaker to build an auto show special as a mass-market vehicle. The New Beetle is just about the hottest thing on four wheels at the moment. But is it a real car, practical for everyday use?

In a word, yes. Despite the unique styling, the underpinnings of the New Beetle (that's the official name) are the same as the Volkswagen Golf. A bit of irony there, as the Golf is a direct descendent of the car that replaced the old Beetle. So it goes. Despite the heritage, the New Beetle is a completely modern automobile that bodes well for Volkswagen's future. It is not a nostalgia-laden attempt to recreate the old Beetle.

The New Beetle is an unusual car in that it is not a product of customer surveys and market research. It is a mass-production design based on the Concept One show car that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in early 1994. Press and public reaction to the Concept One was an overwhelming "build it!", and VW did. No focus groups necessary. The result is unlike anything else on the road. During my week with a New Beetle, I was the center of attention everywhere I went. That was positive attention, with people of all ages and walks of life pointing, waving, and smiling. VW has struck a chord in the American psyche. But, that shouldn't overwhelm the basic goodness of the car. The New Beetle is a well thought out small car with performance and comfort far beyond the bare-bones nature of its namesake.

APPEARANCE: The two most commonly-heard words during my time with the New Beetle were "It's cute!" The New Beetle is a cartoon of a car in the best sense, and unlike anything else on the road today. Derived with little change from the Concept One show car, the basic shape pays homage to the venerable old Beetle with separate, bulbous fenders and a hint of running boards. But it's larger, and the vast expanses of window glass and compound curves of the body are advanced far beyond the simple panels of the old Type 1 sedan. With the fender treatment, high rounded roofline, and near-equally-sized head and taillights, the New Beetle looks almost the same coming or going - and it's smiling either way. The centrally-mounted antenna gives it a whimsical, Toonerville Trolley look and adds to the smile factor. It looks like the world's biggest radio-controlled toy.

COMFORT: The New Beetle's interior is as innovative and distinctive as its exterior. For the front seat occupants, it's amazingly roomy and very well-designed. The front bucket seats are manually adjustable for cushion height as well as the usual fore-and-aft and rake. As in the old Beetle, front headroom is very, very good. As in the old Beetle, too, rear headroom and luggage space are less impressive -- the copious room of the Golf in those areas is sacrificed for style. Still, kids fit fine, and the rear seat folds down to handle large items like golf clubs. A large rear hatch makes cargo loading easy. Despite the superficial resemblance to the old Beetle outside, the interior of the New Beetle has no similarity in design to its ancestor. It's ultramodern and very functional. The well-raked windshield is at the far end of a long, minivan-like dash, not inches from the driver's face. The instrument panel and general interior style is modern high-tech with just a slight nod to the past in use of body-colored panels just below the side windows. The heater works very well, and air conditioning, a 6- speaker CD-ready AM/FM/cassette stereo, an alarm system, and plenty of cupholders are all standard equipment. The New Beetle is a well- equipped, thoroughly modern, and very comfortable car.

SAFETY: The New Beetle is one of the best-rated small cars for survivability in frontal collisions. It has front and rear crush zones, shoulder straps and headrests for all four occupants, dual frontal and side airbags, and daytime running lights. Antilock brakes are available.

ROADABILITY: Not only is the New Beetle fun to look at and be seen in, it's a joy to drive. Particularly when equipped with the "Sport Package" wheel and tire upgrade, it actually improves on the Golf's good road manners. There is less body roll in cornering than in a current Golf, and excellent maneuverability. The ride quality is very good, especially for a small car. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is weighted just right for easy low-speed maneuvering and highway stability. Unlike its namesake, the New Beetle is stable in windy conditions and stops quickly with 4-wheel disc brakes.

PERFORMANCE: Zero-to-sixty? Yes. The New Beetle may not have race-car acceleration, but with it 2.0-liter, 115-horsepower 4-cylinder engine it's far quicker than any unmodified version of the original. Hillclimbing is no problem, either. No downshifting is necessary climbing highway grades, although the standard 5-speed manual transmission makes running through the gears fun and easy. The optional 4-speed automatic causes a noticeable drop in acceleration, but adds convenience in traffic. For the fuel miser, a frugal turbodiesel is available.

CONCLUSIONS: Has Volkswagen invented a cure for road rage? The New Beetle generates more smiles per mile than anything on wheels. It's also a real car, and a good one at that.


Base Price              $ 15,200
Price As Tested         $ 16,980
Engine Type             inline 4-cylinder, single overhead cam, 8 valves
Engine Size             2.0 liters, 121 cu. in.
Horsepower              115 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          122 @ 2600 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      98.9 in. / 161.1 in.
Curb Weight             2712 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   23.6
Fuel Capacity           14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded regular, 87 octane
Tires                   P205/55 HR16 Michelin Energy m+s
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut /
                        independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain              front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      23 / 29 / 25
0 to 60 mph                   10 sec (0-60? Yes)
Coefficient of Drag (cd)      0.38


CA / MA / NY/ CT emissions                 $ 100
Sport Package - includes:
  alloy wheels, upgraded tires, foglamps   $ 410
Convenience Package - includes:
  cruise control, power windows            $ 470
Anti-lock braking system                   $ 300
Destination charge                         $ 500
Old Versus New: A Beetle Comparison