Volkswagen Beetle blast from the past

Volkswagen's Beetle is 75 years old this year and the latest model recalls its past, says motoring editor Andy Russell.

We live in a hi-tech modern world but there's no denying that there is still a place for nostalgia and the retro look.

You only have to look at the latest clothing fashions with today's youngsters paying a small fortune for what was considered cheap workwear in my youth (you can tell I was year older with yet another birthday last week!), re-runs of classic sit-coms often proving more popular with TV viewers that the current crop of 'entertainment' and reborn iconic cars, like the Volkswagen Beetle, MINI and Fiat 500, big hits with modern motorists.

And now Beetlemania is back again – 75 years after the original launch – with the new-generation Beetle which is bigger than the previous version launched back in 1998 with styling much closer to the original model which made its debut in 1938 so it's a case of going back to its roots.

The previous generation's curvy 'three dome' side view has been replaced with a longer roof, the windscreen moved back and a sloping back end rather than the bulbous boot. And, longer, wide and lower, Volkswagen admits it is more masculine and dynamic and it does look better.

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Unlike the original Beetle, it follows the previous-generation range in having the engine at the front and boot at the back.

And under that bonnet is a range of modern, efficient turbo engines – 105PS 1.2, 160PS 1.4 and 200PS 2.0-litre TSI petrol, with the 1.4 also boasting a supercharger, and 105PS 1.6 and 140PS 2.0-litre TDI diesels.

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The perky 2.0 TDI I drove was flexible from low revs with gutsy mid-range punch for overtaking when stirred into life with the precise six-speed gearbox. Despite some exuberant driving it returned 50-53mpg.

If you don't do lots of miles the 1.2 TSI petrol works well with the optional seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. A six-speed automatic is offered with both 2.0-litre engines.

The interior also harks back to the original Beetle design with the flip-lidded compartment above a conventional glovebox on the passenger side, which makes up for having elastic retaining straps on the doors rather than conventional bins. The controls and instruments show modern simplicity and look and feel quite at home in the retro design of the upright dashboard. Even the touchscreen panel for the infotainment and media system is well integrated and does not appear out of place.

What I was not so keen on was the mid-spec Design model's body-coloured panel across the dashboard, along the doors and rear panels and also picked up on the steering wheel – it's not so bad in a muted colour but on my red test car it was rather overpowering. Choose a less in-your-face colour and it can really add to the Beetle's appealing character. I was also disappointed by the quality of the plastic trim, compared to a Golf with which the Beetle shares its underpinnings. Even on top of the fascia the plastic is hard, albeit nicely textured and you can't fault the build quality, but the feel is not in keeping with a range which starts at more than �15,000 with a price tag more in keeping with its desirability.

Inside the Beetle seats only four people with decent space up front but, even though the new model has grown, headroom and legroom in the sculpted back seats is at a premium especially if those in front slide their seats well back so it is best suited for children although adults can manage short journeys.

What has really benefited from the bigger body is the hatchback boot which has grown from 209 litres in the previous range to a much more practical 310 litres although my test car was fitted with the optional �500 Fender premium soundpack upgraded audio system which includes a subwoofer on one side of the flat-sided, well-shaped boot that eats into useable space. Rear seat backs split 50/50 and fold flat but sit proud of the boot floor – that said, if you are looking for practical, load-lugging hatchback you would be better off with VW's Polo or Golf.

The driving position is sound with good all-round visibility but, despite being a hatchback, in a nod to the original Beetle there is no back wiper.

The Beetle is not as much fun to drive as it is to own – the ride is quite firm, making it jittery on poor surfaces when travelling slowly, and the handling composed and competent rather than rewarding.

Three trim levels are offered – standard Beetle, Design and Sport – all with good standard safety and security kit, semi-automatic air-conditioning, electric windows and heated mirrors and trip computer. Design adds upgraded trim, Bluetooth preparation, front fog lights, touchscreen DAB radio with six-CD autochanger and 17in alloy wheels. Sport has dual-zone climate control, 18in alloys, sportier styling cues, cruise control, parking sensors and ambient lighting.

The latest Beetle takes a motoring legend to new levels of practicality and desirability. It's an acquired taste and not cheap but with a following of fans there will be plenty of people willing to pay the price.

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