Motoring: Beetle mania

The verdict: Readers road-test Volkswagen's funky new Beetle. By Michael Booth. Photographs by Teena Taylor
Four years ago Volkswagen unveiled a funky

piece of retro-whimsy called Concept 1. We

weren't stupid. We realised that it was in fact a new Beetle and the response from press and public was so ecstatic that VW was practically forced at the consumer-power equivalent of gunpoint (cheque-point, perhaps) to manufacture it for real. Now the first cars, made in Volkswagen's plant in Puebla, Mexico, have been delivered to lucky customers in the all-important US market.

UK drivers won't be able to buy the new Beetle until next year, and even then, we will have to make do with left-hand-drive (right hookers are a year away at least). Expect to cough up pounds 15,000 or so (hardly People's Car money). However, the well-heeled fashion victims among us can already buy a left-hand version from a specialist importer. The example we tested was loaned to us by Brooke Kensington and is currently for sale at pounds 22,200.

I took delivery at midday on Tottenham Court Road in London and before the car's wheels had touched tarmac, crowds had formed on both sides of the street, and the traffic was at a standstill. At one point during the subsequent weekend, as I drove past my local park, an entire football match ground to a halt as the players stopped to look and smile in unison. I'm convinced that there must be health benefits to be had from the bombardment of goodwill you receive while driving this car.

I have to admit that I, too, was far more taken by New Beetle in the flesh than in photographs, which made it look a little too Toy Town. The Beetle is actually quite stylish, elegant even. The second surprise is its size. This is a bulky car, bordering on obese. Park it next to an old Beetle and you half imagine the younger car might jump upon its parent and eat it (not unknown in the insect world).

The third surprise is that to drive, New Beetle is entirely unsurprising. Based on the Golf's chassis and running gear (with its two-litre, eight-valve engine), it drives just as the Golf does but is as well if not better equipped, with air-conditioning and cruise control as standard. The suspension is absorbent, the gear change average, and the brakes efficient, but power assistance robs the steering of precision, and the huge body takes the edge off acceleration. What's more, that freaky bulbous form proves to be the main source of grumbles from rear-seat passengers as the radical curved roof severely compromises rear headroom. But, on balance, I'd say that's a fair price to pay for a car that looks this fabulous. So, stop moaning in the back.

The new Beetle is going to create a storm of interest when it finally arrives here in significant numbers. How sales fare over the next few years will be the acid test though. Ford's Ka is only now beginning to sell in the numbers they'd hoped it would and the Beetle makes that look staid. A weekend in the Beetle was terrific fun, but whether it's going to be a car for all seasons and, more especially, moods remains to be seen

Brooke Kensington (01869 325551)

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

Martin Waller, 42, MD of interior design company Andrew Martin International, from London, currently drives a Rover Cabriolet

"It's very good-looking inside. It's the motoring equivalent of a greatest hits re-release I suppose," observed Martin. "There's a vast affection for the Beetle because people remember it firstly as a car that always started in the morning, and secondly as a quirky, fun car, and I think this will tap in to that feeling even though it's not very faithful to Dr Porche's original design. I think the sort of person who'll buy this is the sort of person who likes to give their cars a name. It's a fashion statement really. I'd probably admire it from a distance rather than actually buy one."

Jane Fletcher, 50, housewife (pictured); David Fletcher, 55, chartered surveyor, from London. Currently drive a Mercedes 300 estate

Jane and David are looking for a new car and were immediately smitten by the Beetle. Jane: "It looks terrific, the interior is very well laid out, though I'd rather have an automatic. Driving position is very important to me and this is good, it's very easy to drive, very responsive, I could very happily do a long journey in it. I suppose it's aimed at media career girls, 25 to 30 years old." David: "It actually looks better in the flesh than the photos I've seen. Young people will absolutely love it, it's not too flash or ostentatious, but the rear headroom is poor. It feels much nippier than other cars of this size that we've tried, but the ride is still well sprung and there's no question it's a Beetle from the outside."

Paul Nickson, 27, British Airways marketing manager, from Haywards Heath. Currently drives a Vauxhall Astra Diesel

"I've seen a few of these in the States but then I thought it looked crap, but I must admit it's really grown on me," said Paul. "I used to own an old Beetle and the great thing about that was that you could personalise it, but you couldn't really do anything to this. It does handle better than the old Beetle though, but then it should considering the old design was over 50 years old. I think it will appeal to people my age who want to relive their college days, but personally, as soon as there are a few more in the country I'd expect the individualistic appeal of them to wane somewhat."

Diane Taylor, 32, sales rep, from Romford. Currently drives a Renault Laguna estate

To begin with Diane had a few grumbles - "The gear stick is too far forward and that vase [there's one on the dashboard] is just silly, I think I'd buy the Golf if I was after a car of this size" - but after a while, she began to warm to the Beetle. "Visibility is good and it's a lot smoother than the old car and it pulls well for a small car - it'd be very good on a motorway, very quiet. I like the little design details too, like the cup holders and the power points, and the seats give good back support. It's lost some of the fun and feel of the old car but it is more sophisticated, Herbie with a Filofax! It's had a wider range of people looking at it than I would have expected. I think this could grow on me."