1998 Volkswagen Beetle: On the road again
"I knew it was one the minute I saw it,"
said Don Forrest, 56, the affable owner of the F-Mart, a small store in Marietta, South Carolina that boasts not only having the 'Best Hot Dogs in Town' but also being 'North Cleveland's Knife Capital.' Forrest came hustling out of the store the second I drove up.
He'd never owned a Beetle but he knew the New Beetle when he saw it. "It has enough of the original Bug that it reminds you of the Bug," he said, before asking if I wanted to buy a pocket knife.
I bought a hot dog instead.
While the New Beetle may look something like the Old Beetle, the secret architecture is all wrong. Volkswagen has gone over to the Dark Side with the heretical use of a water-cooled engine in the front and front-wheel drive. Indeed, beneath the New Beetle's arched form is the mechanical package borrowed from the new Volkswagen Golf, with different tuning for the springs and shocks.
Certainly visually slick, the New Beetle isn't an efficient package aerodynamically. Its 0.38 Cd represents a somewhat confrontational attitude towards the air, though wind noise isn't a serious problem, even at 135km/h.
The body is steel, except for the plastic composite front guards. Wheelbase is 2512mm and overall length is 4092mm, but there is a deceptively large amount of room inside, particularly headroom; up front, at least. Its 1514mm overall height, gives it giraffe-like status among subcompacts. The result is that even a 193cm tall driver has plenty of headroom left under a huge, domed roof that soars above its occupants like a mobile version of the Sistine Chapel and imparts a sense of space and freedom that belies its compact exterior dimensions. Rear passenger room is, let's just say, less generous.
The interior design is as unique as the New Beetle's exterior styling. Near Lake Jocassee, South Carolina, a group of young, industrial designers who work for the kayak builder Perception were delighted by the New Beetle, ranging from its overall look to the tiniest details.
"It is the attention to material." explained product designer Todd King.
For example, the dash used a textured material, while the handbrake uses a chequered rubber grip against what looks like brushed aluminium. "It steps out from the mould of what a traditional car is," he said.
The Perception guys, however, had two serious disappointments. One was that the radio antenna, mounted in the centre of the roof, would probably make carrying kayaks a challenge without drilling a small hole in the bottom of the kayak, which would eventually present its own flotational difficulties. The second was the common, modern sound of the horn, which they felt should have mimicked that of the Old Beetle.
Overall. the New Beetle's ergonomics are good, but the instrumentation is marginal and favours form over function. Not only is there no gauge for coolant temperature, but the tachometer is only about 50mm in diameter.
That makes it a tiny circle set below the huge speedometer, which makes it difficult to grab a quick glance and discover how close you are to bumping the rev limiter.
Another thing that will disappoint the enthusiast is the pedal placement, especially the accelerator and brake: they're too far apart and at different levels, making heel and toeing difficult.
The small, plastic flower vase to the right of the steering wheel is one interior item that pays homage to the Old Beetle. Driving Miss Daisy, indeed. One item never imagined on the Old Beetle, however, are the standard equipment side-impact airbags. They're located in the front seats, the theory being they'll be in the proper position regardless of the seat's location.
The front seats are comfortable, supportive and lift and tilt forward, providing easy access to the rear seat, where there is just barely enough room for two nimble, flexible adults - assuming the spirit of compromise is visited upon those in the front seat. Like we said, rear headroom's also at a premium.
There's also a practical nature to the New Beetle because the back seat folds down, expanding the cargo area under the rear hatch. With the second seat up, Volkswagen says boot volume is 339 litres. That means it can easily handle a couple of suitcases or a large load of groceries. The only downside on our test vehicle was that the hatch tended not to close completely without a hearty slam combined with verbal threats. Also, the handle hidden under the huge 'VW* emblem was baulky.
The extended dash immediately strikes you as being one of the oddest elements of the New Beetle. While Old Beetle drivers became accustomed to a windscreen that was literally inches away, the New Beetle's shape meant the designers had to incorporate almost a metre of black dash leading out to the screen like a plastic wasteland. The result is that the driver feels somewhat distanced from the vehicle and the process of driving. There is no 911, Mazda MX-5 or Toyota MR2 intimacy. It's more like watching a video game or big-screen television, and with such a rearward vantage point even a tall driver is unable to see the New Beetle's outer extremities.
Travelling on the two-lanes that crinkle and curl through the mountains along the border of Virginia and West Virginia eased worries that the New Beetle would be vastly more fun to look at than to drive. Heading into the first downhill, left hander, the rack-and-pinion, power-assisted steering with its 17.8:1 ratio felt a little light, but it turned out to be tight on centre and linear. The New Beetle starts to change direction quickly, but its overall height means a moderate amount of body roll as it turns in.
When the bitumen turns rumpled, the MacPherson strut front and torsion-beam rear suspensions with standard 205/55R16 Goodyears deem such breaks and ripples irrelevant and refuses to become upset.
When the road suddenly and churlishly heads back in the other direction, the New Beetle is ready on short notice. But as that turn tightens even more and the New Beetle is pushed harder, these's a hint of imminent lightness in the tail that discourages the driver from exploring lateral acceleration any further. Happily, backing off abruptly doesn't change the car's attitude significantly; the New Beetle just loses speed, with appropriate credit being due to the use of track-correcting bushings in the rear suspension. This surrender to commonsense hasn't meant the New Beetle doesn't have the ability to please and amuse. It's far more than a pretty face and has a lively feel. But some enthusiasts would probably trade off the surprisingly good ride quality (at low or high speeds) for more assertive damping and stricter control over body roll.
The brakes are 256mm diameter vented discs in front and solid discs rear with anti-lock brakes a US$300 option in the States. Pedal response is quick and the feel thoughtfully progressive, providing a reassurance that takes some of the emotional trauma out of unplanned and dramatic reductions in speed. The anti-dive front geometry keeps the nose off the pavement and the New Beetle balanced.
Two engines are available. The standard 2.0 litre, sohc, eight-valve four delivers 85kW at 5200rpm and 165Nm at an easy-access 2600rpm. The optional engine (which costs US$1275 more) is Volkswagen's 1.9 litre, turbo direct-injection diesel with 66kW at 3750rpm and 202Nm at 1900rpm. Transmission choice is either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Mid this year, however, Volkswagen will offer the turbocharged 1.8 litre four found in the Audi A4 and Passat, with 110kW at 5700rpm and 210Nm at 1750-4600rpm. It will also come with 17in wheels, a speed-activated rear spoiler and probably slightly firmer suspension.
In my case, the New Beetle's 1230kg kerb weight was being dealt with by the 2.0 litre petrol engine and the five-speed, in which the clutch take-up is light and friendly, although there's some notchiness on final engagement. But the ratios are fairly tight, providing a steady and predictable supply of acceleration at virtually any time. That includes fifth, which isn't a lazy, fuel-economy overdrive. At 130km/h, the four cylinder turns almost 4000rpm.
Engine response is good in the mid-range, starting about 2000rpm, and control over NVH is good by four-cylinder standards. Pushing much past 5000rpm, however, becomes more an exercise in senseless persistence than additional velocity.
The New Beetle has far more going for it than flower power, and acceleration is perfectly adequate for most applications. But, it is not fast. Minor abuse will result in 0-100km/h in just over 11.6 seconds.
Cleverly, that lack of acceleration is a fact wily Volkswagen officials plan to use as a selling point. One commercial planned for American TV says simply: "Zero to 60mph? Yes." Nevertheless, veterans of the Old Beetle will find acceleration in the New Beetle to be a heady and perhaps disorienting experience. The New Beetle will easily cruise an interstate at 145km/h with something in reserve.
It's also not overly fond of Beetle juice, either. In my 1100km trip - which combined 120 to 140km/h interstate cruising with some equally brisk two-lane explorations, the New Beetle averaged slightly more than 10.9L/100km. With a 55litre tank that makes for reasonable cruising range anywhere but in Oz.
Volkswagen claims the diesel engine should deliver 1125km.
The New Beetle's lack of outrageous speed, is not apparent to all. At a stoplight about 9pm on a Saturday in North Carolina, two young men who looked like Dukes of Hazzard bad guys pulled alongside. The New Beetle trembled from the exhaust of what was once a Chevrolet Chevelle SS before being modified to sound more like an F-111.
The window rolled down. The passenger spoke: "Is it fassssssst?" he drawled. "Not hardly," I responded, wondering if the headline in the newspaper the next morning would read: 'Driver of cute little foreign car beaten to snot.' The occupant paused. Looked it over. Paused as if in reflection.
"Ahhhhhhh like it," he said before waving and grunting off with a big grin.
And such universal appeal is the most amazing part of the New Beetle.
Jaguars to Dukes of Hazzard. It's also inarguably fun to drive, although it won't go down in history as a fake-no-prisoners dynamic package, a 1998 pocket rocket for the hardcore enthusiast. But Volkswagen has managed to combine a strikingly different, charming and distinctive vehicle with extremely pleasing road manners at a thoroughly reasonable price.
1998 Volkswagen New Beetle
Layout; transverse, in-line 4,sohc, 8v
Induction: multi-point fuel injection
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Maximum power: 85kW@5200rpm
Maximum torque: 165Nm@2600rpm
Ratios (km/h 1000rpm): 5-speed manual
Differential ratio: 4.24
Front: independent, struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: independent, torsion beam axle, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Front: vented discs
Steering type: power assisted, rack and pinion
Turning circle (m): 10.8
Front track: 1514mm
Rear track: 1491mm
Fuel tank: 55 litres