Whatever Volkswagen says, no matter what steps it took to remove the flower vase and flatten the bubble roof, this is not a typical guy's car.
The 2012 Beetle — not to be confused with the old New Beetle — is the smiley-faced model's first redesign since I left middle school 13 years ago. In car years, the outgoing Beetle is as old a hippie as Susan Sarandon, and about as relevant a statement as her robo-calls urging Californians to legalize pot. Car buyers have tired of the Beetle's throw-it-to-the-wind vibe, and instead bought Mini Coopers and VW's cheaper, more practical Golf hatchback. During the frenzied early years, Beetle sales were five-and-a-half times those today.
Now, about that all-important masculinity factor. The Beetle's apparent sexuality was a non-issue for a non-licensed eighth-grader itching to drive. I was obsessed with the 1998 model. Every time I saw a red one, my cross-country team would win races, so we started a Beetle chant. I made my mother take me on a test drive and tell the salesman her 12-year-old son had to sit up front. Were the engine and suspension any good? Better question: Are puppies cute? You just wanted to bring a Beetle home.
We didn't. My mom bought a red Mercury Sable with far more room and power.
This month, four years out of college, I'm driving a red Beetle. At the stoplight in Washington Square, a girl in a New Beetle Turbo pulls up alongside and realizes two things about the car beside her. It's a newer Beetle, and the driver's not a woman.
"Is that the man Bug?" she asks with a little grin, a tall clump of flowers stuffed into her Beetle's dashboard vase.
"Why yes, it is," I say. "What do you think?"
"I like it." Her male passenger, speechless, just nods.
So, while the 2012 Beetle isn't a guy's car in the way a GTI or WRX screams "pent-up hormonal male on board," you no longer look like a bubble boy inside it. Where the old model was made with protractors, this Beetle has been hit with a big T-square. The front end is slightly longer and less rounded, the windshield chopped and straighter, and the only genuine curve begins after the B-pillar, where the big hatch opens.
Inside, you'd swear this was a stout coupe instead of a Beetle. Most everything is rectilinear and upright, including the flat swath of body-color trim across the dash and doors (which, on our red car, gave the daily impression we were headed to a fire). There's decent legroom behind the front seats, and even with a flat roof there's plenty of headroom. Still, there's some playfulness — the gigantic fuel gauge, the new dash glovebox that can only fit napkins — but overall, the Beetle feels weirdly normal. A Mini Cooper is an insane asylum where nothing, not even the window switches, makes any rational sense.
Like all Volkswagens, the Beetle delivers first-rate ergonomics with well-placed, all-backlit controls. The touchscreen nav and audio display, with its circular carousel for flipping presets, is fast and simple. All the switches and stalks click with precision. Panel gaps are tight, and while the materials are quite good, they're not up to the plusher standards set by Ford.
Our Beetle, wearing 18-inch alloys fashioned after the classic Beetle's chrome hubcaps, took bumps like a champ. Less liked was the languid steering, which requires a lot of turn-in before the tires respond and makes the Beetle feel like a larger car than it is. Perhaps the Turbo trim, with its sportier suspension, would react quicker.
Quickness, however, is dealt in spades with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, also shared with the Jetta and Golf. The inline-five is another uncommon element (besides VW, only Volvos and the Chevy Colorado pickup use it in the US), but it's smooth, ultra-quiet, and sprightly off the line. The six-speed automatic is a great pairing with its well-spaced ratios.
A five-speed manual is standard, and the Turbo gets a six-speed or VW's fast-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Fuel economy is pretty lousy no matter which transmission you choose, at 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway (and a blazing 21 city, 30 highway for the Turbo). Wait for the TDI diesel to reappear next year for some worthy numbers.
Even as the Beetle dips into the mainstream, it thankfully hasn't become another boring compact. It's still distinctive and very recognizable in traffic. But Volkswagen, in its attempt to make the Beetle unisex, is starting to muffle the charm as its competitors crank it up. Mini has become crazier with a squashed-roof Coupe and an all-wheel-drive, four-door Countryman that lets you snap-off pieces of the interior, just for fun. Men and women of all ages point and gawk at the Fiat 500 like it's some Italian supercar. The Beetle's been around so long that it takes a lot more effort to cause surprise.
Volkswagen also wants to double its US market share in the next few years, so it's less comfortable taking risks on wild features. But did they have to replace the Beetle's funky color palette with more browns and grays? And why must you spend 30 grand for the Turbo to get the eye-catching two-tone seats and flashy LED running lamps?
For a car rooted in carefree, '60s euphoria, Volkswagen may be taking the Beetle — and its new male demographic — too seriously. Did VW consult married women and listen to their every word? If they had, they'd know guys are incapable of being serious for more than several hours, or even years, at a time.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $20,565 / $25,965
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 20 city / 28 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 20 mpg.
Drivetrain: 2.5-liter I-5, 6-speed automatic, front engine, front-wheel-drive.
Body: Two-door, four-passenger hatchback.
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,700 rpm.
Torque: 177 lb.-ft. @ 4,250 rpm.
Overall length: 168.4 in.
Wheelbase: 99.9 in.
Height: 58.5 in.
Width: 71.2 in.
Curb weight: 2,939 lbs.
THE GOOD: Distinctive shape, roomy, peppy, fantastic interior layout
THE BAD: Vague steering, poor gas mileage, cute details cost a lot of money
THE BOTTOM LINE: A competent car that’s getting a bit lost among more stylish, youthful compacts from Mini and Fiat
ALSO CONSIDER: Mini Coupe/Cooper, Fiat 500, Volkswagen Golf