VW takes Beetle back to the future

Re-creating the Beetle yet again has resulted in what VW dubs 'new original', says Andy Russell.

When going for the retro look, and creating a modern classic, car-makers meddle with the metal at their peril.

It's hard enough the first time but when it comes to doing it again it's even harder to find the right blend of tradition and technology, nostalgia and newness – especially when you are dealing with a car as iconic as the Volkswagen Beetle, with more than 21.5 million sales over 73 years.

It's 14 years since Volkswagen launched the 'New' Beetle so no one can accuse it of rushing the new-generation model. While retro models' looks don't really date, the technology does.

This all-new model addresses both issues and, while unmistakably a Beetle, it goes back to its roots. Longer, wider but lower than the previous model, this Beetle has lost the three semi-circles design – front wing, rear wing and domed roof – with the design team, many of whom own original Beetles, setting out to create what VW calls a 'new original'.

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The result is that the latest Beetle has lost some of its cute curves and is more muscular and dynamic with a rear section and sleeker profile strikingly similar to the original 1938 model.

While the looks have turned back the clock further, the latest Beetle is bang up to date when it comes to technology with a range of fuel-efficient, low-emission engines.

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It is initially available with 105PS 1.2-litre turbo petrol and 160PS 1.4-litre twin-charged petrol with turbo charger and supercharger. They will be joined later this year by a 200PS 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol and 105PS 1.6-litre BlueMotion Technology and 140PS 2.0-litre TDI turbo diesels.

But petrol power really suits the Beetle and I particularly enjoyed the 1.2 turbo petrol engine which is offered only with the VW Group's excellent seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox in standard Beetle and Design trim levels. It revs freely and feels decidedly peppy, making good progress, easily keeping up with the traffic flow and cruising comfortably at motorway speeds.

Automatic gearboxes don't come much better than those from the VW Group and this seven-speed transmission is first rate with seamless shifts both changing up and down, responsive kick-down and, should you want to use it manually by nudging the lever back and forth, no hesitation. It returned 41mpg on the 20-mile real-world test route with a mix of country roads, urban driving and dual-carriageway.

The twin-charged 1.4 TSI, in Design and Sport trim levels, feels much brisker, especially when you keep it on the boil via the slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox and even driven exuberantly returned 36mpg.

The ride is on the firm side, made even more noticeable on Sport models which have 18in wheels with lower-profile tyres, but the upside is well-mannered, taut handling with good body control through corners and plenty of feel and feeback from the well-weighted power steering.

But, for a car that has grown significantly, legroom in the back is disappointing and even with an average-sized adult up front it's tight in the back.

The latest Beetle may look more like the original but while the latter had its engine in the back, like the previous generation Beetle this model has gone for a more conventional front engine. The bigger dimensions of the new model have been put to good use making it more practical than its predecessor with the well-shaped boot growing considerably from 209 litres to a much more practical 310 litres. Rear seat backs drop 50/50 to raise cargo capacity to 905 litres.

What lets the interior down is the amount of hard plastics on show which, despite being nicely textured and all fitting together well, are a little downmarket in a car that starts at more than �16,000.

The interior is given a lift with body-colour panels on the fascia of Design models and piano black trims used extensively on the fascia and doors of Sport models and the look and feel are typical Volkswagen – tastefully understated and everything in its place with a large speedo flanked by a smaller rev counter and fuel gauge. The driving position has all the adjustment you need to get comfortable an full marks for the snug, well-bolstered front seats in the Sport models which wrap round and nip in all the right places.

Standard Beetle includes anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, front and side airbags, remote locking, electrically heated and adjustable door mirrors, front electric windows, multi-function trip computer, semi-automatic air conditioning and hill-hold function. Design adds upgraded trim inside and out, alarm, Bluetooth, front fog lights with cornering function, USB and iPod connection cables, six CD autochanger and 17in alloy wheels. Sport gains dual-zone electronic climate control, ambient lighting, cruise control, front and rear parking sensors and 18in alloys.

Re-creating the Beetle a second time is no mean feat but making it look even more like the original has been a case of going back to the future.

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