The all-new VW Beetle is ready to muscle in on the MINI. With tougher looks, more engaging driving dynamics and a range of personalisation options, it clearly has the popular Brit squarely in its sights.
Longer, lower and wider than before, the latest Beetle has a much more aggressive and purposeful stance. In a bid to boost its racy appeal, our Sport trim test car featured standard two-tone 18-inch alloys and a rear spoiler, although the latter is slightly naff.
Yet the Beetle still takes many of its design cues from the classic, rear-engined original, including the bulbous wheelarches and distinctive curved roofline. And while it’s not as stylish as the Astra or as sporty as the MINI, it’s undoubtedly eye-catching.
The mix of old and new continues inside, with the full-length piano black strip across the dashboard and flush-fitting glovebox lid both nods to the original.
Yet elsewhere, the cabin is bang up to date, which means you get excellent build quality, top notch materials and a long list of standard kit. The option to have a body-colour finish for the dash and centre console helps. All versions get air-con, a DAB radio and trip computer, while Sport trim adds dual-zone climate control and Bluetooth.
Plus, music fans can specify the £495 400-watt Fender sound system, with eight speakers and a subwoofer in the boot. Also included are illuminated speaker surrounds, which change colour at the touch of a button.
Given that it’s larger than the MINI, the Beetle isn’t as spacious inside as you’d expect. Occupants in the front are well catered for, but taller passengers will find the two individual rear seats a little cramped. What’s more, the small side windows and sloping roofline make the cabin feel a touch claustrophobic.
Nevertheless, the VW is still a more practical proposition than the MINI, thanks to its well shaped 310-litre boot, which extends to a useful 905 litres when you
fold the rear bench flat. There’s also a decent amount of storage inside, with a neat double glovebox, wide door bins and dash-top tray.
You don’t associate hot hatch-rivalling acceleration with the Beetle, but that’s all set to change with this car. The smooth 158bhp 1.4-litre supercharged and turbocharged engine is the most powerful in the range for now, and propels the car from 0-60mph in 8.3 seconds. It’s not as rapid as the MINI, but is more than a match for the 178bhp GTC.
It sounds better than the Astra, too. At low revs you get a distinctive whine from the supercharger, which turns to a rorty growl higher up the rev range. A smooth and precise gearshift and strong brakes complete the performance package.
Head down a twisty back road and it’s obvious VW has tried to make the Beetle more fun to drive. Strong grip, excellent body control and weighty steering mean it feels much more composed and agile than its predecessor, while the clever XDS electronic differential from the Golf GTI increases traction out of corners. However, it lacks the scalpel-sharp responses and constant feedback that make the Cooper S such an engaging and exciting choice.
And when you’re not in the mood for a blast through corners, the VW suffers from a firm ride – although it’s not as uncomfortable as the MINI’s – and heavy steering. As a result, the Beetle requires a fair amount of muscle to park. Still, you may be willing to overlook this flaw when you consider what good value the VW is. At £21,220, it’s not as cheap as the Cooper S, but it comes with much more kit as standard.
The VW also promises stronger residuals than the Astra, plus lower 153g/km CO2 emissions. Factor in the £329 three-year servicing pack, and the new Beetle appeals to the heart as well as the head. Has it done enough to take the honours here, though?
Chart position: 2WHY: The Beetle has been on a body-building course. Tougher looks, keener driving dynamics and strong engines aim to take it to the top of the desirability charts.