Motoring: The Bug is back - and it bites

The New Beetle is set to become a design classic, but can its performance live up to its looks?
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The Independent Culture
You must have heard of the New Beetle. Derived from a concept car created by designers in Volkswagen's Californian creativity outpost, and bang on target for America's youthful sensibilities, be they actual or wishful, the automotive insect idea has gone down a swarm in the States. And now the Mexican-built New Beetle is coming to Europe. Britain's first batch of 1,000 cars, all left-hand drive and costing about pounds 16,200 with lashings of equipment, arrives in January, right-hand drives following at the end of 1999.

The New Beetle, as it is officially known, is based on underpinnings shared with the VW Golf and Bora, the Audi A3 and TT, the Skoda Octavia and the new Seat Toledo. That means it has a front-mounted, water-cooled engine and front-wheel drive, instead of an air-cooled, flat-four rattler at the rear. But that doesn't stop the shape from being truly Beetlish, almost a cartoon of the original but with modern detailing.

It's inspired by a past car, one which has been replicated more than any other (22 million and rising as it is still being made at the Mexican factory), but otherwise there's not much that's slavishly retro apart from two looped, plastic grab-handles. Everything else is a cleaned-up, topological distortion of before, including bash-proof plastic mudguards so it no longer matters that you can't see them from the driver's seat.

So why has Volkswagen produced such a folly? The Concept One show car, unveiled in Detroit in 1994 as a bit of fun, surprised Volkswagen with the strength of pent-up demand. So the company looked into making a production version, and here it is. The original Beetle was a functional people's car, but it became a symbol of youth and universality against excess and obsolescence. The new one reinterprets what the original became, rather than what it was conceived to be. Rover's upcoming new Mini has the same job to do.

You might have seen a New Beetle here already, but it will have been a US-specification car, imported privately or by a specialist. Word has spread, however, and imaginations are fired up. My daughter (11) has begged, demanded, and implored me to bring one home on test so that she and her friends can go to school in it. Nothing is currently cooler than a New Beetle.

After all this, it's actually a bit of a surprise to sit in one, ready to drive off into a flower-powered sunset. For that's the point: Volkswagen is pushing a dream made modern reality, sponsoring an Andy Warhol exhibition at its Wolfsburg, Germany home to coincide with the Beetle's launch, and supplying every New Beetle with a facia-mounted flower vase in the manner of a Sixties American Beetle accessory.

There are two engines available, a 115bhp, 2.0-litre petrol and a 90bhp, 1.9-litre turbodiesel. A petrol V5 (150bhp, 2.3 litres) will follow. Undoubtedly the engine to have is the TDI diesel, because the petrol engine feels and sounds too, well, "normal". The diesel's clattery sound and low-revving nature better suit the expectations that the Beetle's shape generates, even if the sound does emanate from the wrong end. And with a hefty 155lb ft of torque, the Beetle TDI scuttles along with a good deal more verve than the original ever did.

It is also a far better bet in the bends, thanks to its modern engine and suspension layout. It feels quite sporty, actually, with the tautest feel and crispest steering of all the current generation of Golf-based cars. So it is fun to drive, as well as to look at and be in.

Clearly, there is less room inside than in a Golf, but the Beetle is still a proper four-seater and its hatchback - the original certainly didn't have one of those - reveals a meaningful boot space. The rear seat folds, of course, but so did the old one's. The driver is confronted with a typical Beetle instrument cluster, based on a huge, round speedometer, inset this time with a little fuel gauge and an equally small rev-counter.

The seat fabrics echo the body colour (a vivid citrus yellow/green in my car), and plastic panels below the window line are designed to look like painted metal. Dimpled textures and mock-aluminium abound, and the only leathergrain-look is to be found on the gear lever's gaiter. That's an error: the gaiter should be in black rubber, and the lever should be long and spindly. It has the correct springy, clonky action, though.

Well, are you convinced? It's the Disneyland effect: you feel cynical before the experience, but end up captivated. It worked for me, anyway. Obviously there is no sensible reason to buy a Beetle instead of a Golf, but neither has Mickey Mouse ever claimed to be a real rodent.

Specifications

Volkswagen Beetle TDI Price: pounds 16,200

Engine: 1,896cc, four cylinders, eight valves, direct-injection turbodiesel, 90bhp at 3,750rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 106mph, 0-60 in 12.8sec, 49-54mpg

Rivals

The New Beetle has no direct rivals. If you want one, nothing else is likely to do. The role of the old Beetle has been taken over by successive generations of the Golf, and the new one is designed for a different and less serious job. Rover's new Mini, due in 2000, is inspired by the 1959 original and comes the closest to the New Beetle idea.

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