New Car Review: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

Front 3/4 view of black 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle.

13 years ago, a local Volkswagen dealer tossed me the keys to one of the first New Beetles. It wasn't set to go on sale for about a month. To say I got attention would be an understatement. People raced up behind, beside and in front of me to get a look. People stopped me to talk about it. People leaned out of the windows of moving cars to snap pictures with their disposable film cameras and 1 megapixel digitals.

Every last one of them was female. From that moment on, the New Beetle and the pejorative "chick car" were inextricably linked.

Rear roof detail of black 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle roof, spoiler and taillamp.

In re-doing the car, VW had to somehow make the car more appealing to male drivers. They were also fighting the fact that most people, including some fans, had gotten mighty bored. The New Beetle was....very, very old, with only the most superficial of freshenings in its 13-year run.

The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle side view.

They did it.

It was like 1998 all over again. Except, this time...the enthusiasm, the parking lot conversations, the thumbs-up in traffic, the photos snapped in moving traffic on 8-megapixel iPhones...all came from guys.

The Beetle (VW has retired the "New" from the name) has gone from feminine, frugal and flower-power (remember the bud vase next to the steering wheel?) to bad, butch and bitchin'.

Now, admittedly, our test Beetle was the Turbo, which helps considerably. But ours was white with black stripes, the polar opposite of what you see above, and we still got raves from the guys. The more aggressive lines...especially the roofline that blends seamlessly into the tail and the longer hood and more blunt nose...had them acting like they'd just found a Porsche 911 they could afford.

That. my friends, is crazy talk. But...the Beetle does look better and drive better than the car it replaces.

Base price for a Beetle is $18,995. It'll come with a 170 horsepower 2.5 liter five-cylinder and a six-speed automatic (manual transmissions come online later in the model year).

The Turbo gets you an additional 30 horsepower and 30 extra pounds per foot of torque, a DSG dual-clutch six-speed automatic...and it gets better highway mileage than the standard Beetle...and the same city mileage (22 city/30 highway). Hard to find a downside to simply stepping up to the Turbo, other than the $4,400 price difference.

The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle interior.

For the base price of $24,495 (the manual, when available, will go for $23,395) , the Beetle Turbo adds suspension upgrades, Bluetooth, iPod connectivity, three-color ambient lighting, larger brakes with red calipers, a second glovebox above the first, sport seating surfaces, 18-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, foglights, alloy pedals and additional gauges.

So where does it rank in the premium compact spectrum? While in a marketing sense, this is a direct competitor to the Fiat 500, it's actually a completely different kind of car...far more sporting in character.

The Mini, then? Good question. Been years since Mini's sent anything our way other than the hyper-hot rod John Cooper Works convertible last year. Couldn't make a comparison. Yes, BMW, that's a hint. You have our phone number. I will say this, though...Mini drivers were among those giving us thumbs up in traffic.

The great irony in all of this is that the Beetle, the car that broke the cycle of "Longer! Lower! Wider!" in new car design in the U.S. 50 years ago, has saved itself by being all three of those things...and more.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo

Base price: $24,495.

As tested: $24,495.

Likes: Styling, performance, fuel economy.

Dislikes: Lack of a manual transmission until later in the year.

EPA estimates: 22 city/30 highway.