After 13 years as a New Beetle, the iconic VW bug goes back to being just a Beetle. It does this in a big way, with a clean-sheet redesign that makes it new again. It's the new Beetle, not a New Beetle.
The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle jumps like a bug on a skillet from its heritage. It's 7.3 inches longer, 0.5 inches lower, and 3.3 inches wider than the 2010 New Beetle, last one made. The stretch morphs it into a real car, not so much a cute little thing. It's less round. It looks good with more dynamic proportions. It's still unmistakably VW Beetle.
The coefficient of drag, 0.37, is surprisingly good, although not near the lower (by 2 inches) Honda Civic, at 0.315, or the smaller Ford Fiesta at 0.33. But even the taller New Beetle made 0.38 (the original Beetle was 0.48).
The expanded exterior makes the four-seat interior roomier. Interior volume has grown by 5 percent, from 81 to 85 cubic feet. The roof is lower, but because it's also longer, there's a bit more rear headroom. In the front, it gains 1.9 inches in legroom and 2.5 inches in shoulder room, making the 2012 Beetle feel less like a capsule.
The front legroom is 0.7 inches more than that in the all-new 2012 Toyota Yaris, but the Beetle's rear seat has just 31.4 inches of legroom, which is 1.9 inches less than the Yaris, on a wheelbase that's 1.1 inches longer.
The trunk of the 2012 Beetle is spacious at 15.4 cubic feet. With the rear seat folded it's nearly 30 cubic feet, and the high-swinging hatchback enables giant things to fit inside, making the Beetle handy for hauling.
The seats and trim are neat but not fancy. The bucket seats are clean, simple, and comfortable, with excellent bolstering.
Instrumentation is so clean it's memorable for its rarity. In the center of the big clear speedometer there's a multi-function digital display, accessed with a flick of the driver's right thumb, scrolling a small wheel on the steering wheel. All you need to know is right there, almost automatically without thinking or searching for it. It makes for safe driving!
The 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, with an iron block and double overhead cams, is carried over from the New Beetle, but the horsepower increases by 20, to 170 hp. Torque increases by seven foot-pounds, to 177 foot-pounds at 4250 rpm. It's mated to a standard 5-speed manual gearbox, or optional 6-speed automatic transmission that didn't wow us. We've driven a VW Golf with that 5-speed manual transmission, which is satisfying and gives the car pep from 0 to 60. We recommend the manual.
Acceleration in the 2.5L is adequate, and 75 mph on the freeway is smooth and mostly effortless. The 6-speed manual automatic transmission isn't as much fun as the manual, especially with this engine. The automatic's side-to-side semi-manual shifting using the lever at the floor was better than nothing, but not very racy.
A 2.0-liter Turbo model is also available that comes with a 6-speed manual transmission and a different rear suspension. The turbocharged engine makes 207 horsepower and 217 pound-feet of torque at a low 1700 rpm, and it gets about the same fuel mileage although on high-test gas. It's hot, with acceleration not far behind a Mini Cooper S.
If you want jaw-stretching torque and fuel mileage on the far side of 40 mpg, there's the TDI, coming in summer 2012 as a 2013 model. It's a 2.0-liter turbodiesel with direct injection, making 236 pound-feet of torque. The engine has been used successfully for some time in the Golf and Jetta TDI.
The chassis is rigid and the body solid, with subframes front and rear, supporting the suspension. The rear uses a torsion beam, although the Beetle Turbo uses a more sophisticated multi-link, for the higher threshold of cornering. The freeway ride in the Beetle doesn't suffer for the torsion beam. It's comfortable and consistent. Potholes don't hurt, but rough pavement can make the rear end of the car want to dance.