Volkswagen Beetle

Can updated retro three-door beat the sophisticated Audi?

The latest Beetle is much better to drive than its predecessor and is more attractive, too. The cabin is smart and fun, while composed handling and a frugal engine make it easy to live with. The ride isn’t perfect, but it’s not as firm as the A1’s, so the Beetle is the more comfortable of the two. Although it’s not as cost-effective as the A1, it’s definitely the more characterful car of the pair.

In the 74 years since the original rear-engined people’s car was launched, more than 21 million Volkswagen Beetles have found homes across the globe. As a result, the company is the custodian of arguably the most recognisable car body shape in the motor industry.

So it’s no surprise that the latest car to wear this legendary badge is unmistakably a Beetle. Bulbous arches, bug-eye lights and a curved bonnet – all the classic details are here. And with its pastel blue paint and retro wheel rims, our Design-spec model positively oozes old-school charm. Longer, lower and wider than the car it replaces, the new Beetle is a little more self-assured and a little less of a caricature than before.

Inside, you’ll find an attractive blend of historically inspired character and the usual Volkswagen quality. In a nod to the original car, the flat-faced dash and door trims feature a body-coloured strip, while the flush-fitting glovebox is another hint at the past. Yet elsewhere, top-notch materials, simple switchgear and a very clear layout mean the cabin is just as you’d expect a modern Volkswagen’s to be.

In the back, the Beetle has more legroom than the Audi A1, but a curved roofline means there’s no more headroom. And while the sculpted individual seats are comfortable enough, the small rear windows leave passengers feeling a little claustrophobic.

On the plus side, the 310-litre boot is 40 litres bigger than the Audi’s, while the rear seats split and fold to increase available luggage space to 905 litres. There’s also a decent amount of cabin stowage, and unlike in the Audi, you get a space-saver spare wheel rather than just a repair kit.

From the driver’s seat, the curved windscreen and colour-coded three-spoke steering wheel make the Beetle feel a bit special before you even set off. And once you’re on the move, there’s a noticeable improvement over the outgoing model.

The handling is assured, if not inspiring and the steering is well weighted. But while this car is definitely more agile than the last Beetle, it lacks the sharper responses and tauter body control of the smaller A1.

Both cars have 17-inch wheels, but the VW’s bulbous high-profile tyres are the polar opposite to the Audi’s low-profile rubber. You’d expect this to improve ride quality, but while the Beetle isn’t as firm as the A1, its suspension is still very unsettled over bumpy tarmac. On smoother road surfaces such as motorways, it’s not too bad – in fact, refinement in general is a strong point. For example, even though it has the same engine under the bonnet, albeit with slightly less power, the Volkswagen recorded lower cabin noise figures in our test than the Audi.

The two cars are closely matched on performance. In fact, although the Beetle is 227kg heavier than the A1, at 1,417kg, it was slightly quicker from 0-60mph – setting a time of 8.6 seconds – and responded faster in higher gears. This is partly down to the shorter gear ratios and fast shift action of the DSG box during full-throttle acceleration; our Audi test model features a six-speed manual.

Away from the test track, the A1 is more responsive, especially if you leave the VW in auto mode and wait for it to kick down. The Beetle’s CO2 emissions are a bigger concern – with DSG, it emits 140g/km, and even the 129g/km manual doesn’t come close to matching the stop-start-equipped Audi’s 108g/km figure.

So, while we saw a respectable 40.6mpg in the Beetle, it will cost more to run. It can’t match the Audi’s residual values, either, and aside from a Bluetooth kit and DAB radio, there’s not a huge difference in standard equipment.

This makes it hard for the VW to justify its £2,165 price premium. It’s a bigger, more distinctive car – but is that enough to win?

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