Can Volkswagen's third generation Beetle be more than just a lifestyle statement? Jonathan Crouch reports on the improved version.
Volkswagen's third generation Beetle has proved to be a classier and more mature car than its predecessor, qualities the Wolfsburg brand has tried to enhance with the latest round of changes. These create a slightly smarter look, with extra value added to specifications, plus there's the option of a more Crossover-style 'Dune' derivative. Importantly for its target market amongst retro rivals, this car remains a very style-conscious choice, whether you go for it in Coupe or Cabriolet guises. Aesthetics matter. Go on. Live a beautiful life.
So to the Volkswagen Beetle. You'll probably remember that this car was re-launched in modern era guise at the turn of the century and following on from that, over a million new era examples were sold over thirteen years. Despite that, the second generation version of this car was never quite the success it might have been. The curvy Toytown looks and touches like the flower vase on the dash left it as an exclusively feminine and fashion-centric choice, buyers who quickly forsook its charms when at the turn of the century the New MINI and much later, the reinvented Fiat 500 came along. Hence the need for the all-new third generation Beetle that was introduced in 2012, the car we're going to look at in improved form here. This was a model with wider appeal and one much closer to the feel of the original post-war design. Longer, wider and lower than its MK2 predecessor, it was intended to look more sporty, masculine and dynamic and did. Plus, because the Golf underpinnings remained, the MK3 Beetle could be a more practical choice than its retro rivals. Those competitors - cars like the MINI Hatch and the DS3 - have recently improved themselves though, hence the need for the thorough Beetle update we're going to look at here.
Let's cut to the chase. No, this car still doesn't offer quite as good an overall ride and handling package as you'll find in the Golf, but to compare these two cars is an irrelevance. You'll buy a Beetle because it's a bit of fun and because there aren't too many compromises required in doing so. And that's all a million miles from the dull, sensible practicality of Golf motoring. Under the skin, no Beetle features the state-of-the-art multi-link rear suspension set-up you'll find in pokier Golfs, but most potential buyers probably won't notice that this model perseveres with a simpler, cheaper torsion beam arrangement. Popular is the 1.4 TSI petrol model, probably pick of the range, offering a 150PS output from an engine that uses both supercharging and turbocharging to produce a healthy 250Nm of torque, good enough to see this car to sixty from rest in 8.7s. It's pretty good round the twisty stuff too, thanks to a clever XDS electronic differential lock. This improves handling through fast corners by selectively braking the unloaded wheel on the inside of the curve, so preventing wheelspin and firing the car through the bend. But Beetle motoring isn't really about high performance and with that in mind, you may feel minded to save a little and opt for the lower-powered petrol derivative or a diesel. Petrol-wise, you're looking at a turbocharged 1.2 TSI unit, surprisingly punchy despite its modest 105PS output. With 175Nm of torque on tap, sixty here is 10.9s away en route to 112mph. The diesel option is a 2.0 TDI unit offered with either 110 or 150PS.
We'll start with the styling changes made to these lightly improved Coupe and Cabriolet models; to be frank, they're not particularly significant. There are sharpened lines for the front bumpers, while larger openings around the indicator and fog light surrounds give extra depth to the car's appearance. Go for top 'R-Line' trim and there's a sportier bumper design. Go for the 'Dune' version and there's a 10mm ride height increase, with more rugged looks enhanced via 18-inch 'Mythos' alloy wheels, front and rear wheelarch extensions and bolder bumper designs. Otherwse, things are much as before, which means that, against the odds, something of a feel of Dr Ferdinand Porsche's early 'Peoples' Car' has somehow made it through to this third generation model, most notably in the large wheels plumply positioned beneath the flared flowing arches and a rear C-pillar that follows the contours of the original design. So there's something of the past, artfully mixed with a sporty vision of the future. Moving inside the three-door-only bodyshape, at the wheel, you're seated behind a traditional upright dashboard with a set of three traditional dials visible through a sporty three-spoke thin-rimmed wheel. Unfortunately, the plastics are traditional too, so no Golf-like soft-touch surfaces. Still, the quality seems good even if the Mexican factory doesn't seem to screw things together quite up to German-fabricated Golf standards. Interior updates with this improved model include brighter instrument panel lighting, plush smarter upholstery materials and revised dials and dash styling for the Design and R-Line models. Classic Beetle touches include the upwards-opening glovebox, natty elastic straps instead of door pockets and the optional auxiliary instruments you can specify to sit above the infotainment controls. You'll look in vain for the MK2 Beetle's dash-mounted flower vase though. Good.
There are now four trim levels offered - 'Beetle', 'Design', R-Line' and 'Dune'. Expect to pay somewhere in the £17,000 to £25,000 bracket for most versions of the hardtop Beetle model we're looking at here, depending on the model and spec you decide upon. That's not bad value in Volkswagen terms, something aided perhaps by the fact that this car is Mexican-built with more affordable labour. There's also the option of a trendier-looking 'Dune' version with a higher ride height. That's based on the 'Design' trim level and is priced from around £21,500. Cabriolet models start from around £20,000 - or from around £25,000 in 'Dune' guise. Engine-wise, there are 110 and 150PS versions of a frugal 2.0-litre diesel, but most UK sales will be of the 1.2 and 1.4-litre TSI petrol engines that this car was launched with. All models get Climatic semi-automatic air conditioning that also cools the glovebox, a trip computer, power heated mirrors, electric windows, an 8-speaker MP3-compatible CD stereo with aux-in point and a hill-holder clutch to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions. Go for the sporty 'R-Line' and you can expect to find 18-inch 'Twister' alloy wheels, a rear tailgate spoiler, 'Sports' instrument dials, aluminium pedals and scuff plates featuring the 'R-Line' logo. Inside, 'R-Line' buyers get a leather-trimmed three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, which has an R-Line badge insert and coloured stitching too. The seats are finished in 'Kyalami' cloth and the R-Line badge is resplendent in the headrests.
Sensible virtues probably won't be top of your agenda in selecting a Beetle, but should they happen to be, then you'll need to be talking to your dealer about the 110PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel version, as it comes with all of Volkswagen's cleverest 'BlueMotion Technology' efficiency tweaks: low rolling resistance tyres, a battery regeneration system and a stop start system that cuts the engine when you don't need it in traffic or at the lights. As a result, it'll emit just 113g/km of carbon dioxide and can return an impressive 64.2mpg on the combined cycle which will give a usefully long operating range from the 55-litre fuel tank. As for the petrol models, well the entry-level 1.2 TSI manages 52.3mpg on the combined cycle and 126g/km, while the 1.4 TSI delivers 49.6mpg and 132g/km. And residual values? Well, for the time being, the Beetle remains fashionable - and that means this car will hold onto the money you've paid very well - better probably than a comparable Golf. Whether that'll continue to be the case long term will probably depend upon the vagaries of fashion. Insurance isn't too prohibitive, to give you an idea rated at either group 11 for the 1.2 or group 18 for this 1.4, these groupings on the 1-50 scale.
And in summary? Well the changes made here aren't really significant enough to bring new Beetle buyers into the fold, but if you'd already decided that you'd like one, then the enhancements made will be very welcome. It certainly helps that the basic product was already very strong. You could argue that in this MK3 design, we finally got the proper Beetle tribute model we should have had in the first place. This car borrows its heritage, its silhouette and its retro uniqueness from the post-war original, but has fused it with the sort of fuel economy, safety and creature comforts that the modern buyer demands - without the retro excesses and gender-specific touches of the second generation car. A sporty look is matched by a sporty feel from an efficient range of engines but even so, this is a design you'll still either love or hate. Which is just as it should be. A model like this remains an unashamed indulgence, both on the part of its maker and those who will buy it. True, the trend modern Beetles once set for High Street chic has now been copied by a whole clutch of rivals. Yet you can see why loyal owners love this Volkswagen so much. It certainly isn't a rational choice. But then, if we did everything for rational reasons, the world would be very dull indeed. Just as its original predecessor did over seventy years ago, this car has made the automotive landscape just that little bit brighter.
We have video road tests of approximately 100 models. Use the dropdowns to choose the road test.