Behind the Wheel: 2010 Volkswagen Beetle

The venerable old Keithmobile-D was in the shop recently for some long-overdue repairs, which means I needed to rent a car for a few days. This time, the rental agency set me up with a brand-spankin’ new black 2010 Volkswagen New Beetle – and of course, as I do with any car I get the chance to drive, I had to write up a review of it.

The New Beetle is a surprisingly small car, considering the fact that it doesn’t really look very small from the outside. But once you’re inside, you realize that only very small children or people with very, very, very thin legs would be able to sit in the back. And the trunk is… well, honestly it’s not that bad, but it’s not very big, and it has a very small opening for getting stuff into it.

So the New Beetle is a small car – but that’s OK! Because sometimes you want a small car. And as far as small cars go, it was actually quite comfortable – the little Beetle soaked up the bumps in the roads quite well (this last winter was very hard on the roads around here, so there were plenty of bumps to soak up!). The ride was quite comfortable, and I although I didn’t make any super long drives in this car, I did make some extended ones, and at no point was I squirming in my seat – so the New Beetle should be quite pleasant on a long drive.

The New Beetle also comes with a 2.5 liter engine which puts out a very reasonable 150 HP – nothing spectacular about those numbers, although 150 HP in a small car is nothing to sneeze at, and the New Beetle does zip around when you really mash your foot down.

And speaking of mashing your foot down, you will find yourself doing this quite a bit, as the throttle is not exactly what I’d call “responsive,” especially at low speeds. It feels quite “mushy” at first, and at stoplights you’ll find yourself pushing harder and harder, because the car just isn’t going anywhere, and then suddenly, vrooooooom! You’ll be off in a rush. It’s almost like the car has only 2 modes – creeping speed, and full-bore. (It may also be that with more time I would have gotten more used to the throttle and been able to modulate it better, but over the course of a week – 7 days – I couldn’t, but your mileage may vary on this one.)

The transmission on the New Beetle, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Since the model I was testing was a rental, of course it had an automatic transmission. But, as is common these days, it was a “triptonic” automatic – meaning you could shift (sequentially) through the gears by flipping the lever one way or the other. I like these sorts of transmissions as a good compromise between a boring automatic and the more fun manual.

However, one thing that I can’t understand is why the transmission on the New Beetle has six (yes, SIX) gears. Perhaps this is some new trend in cars these days – I have heard of some cars with 7 gears! – but honestly I just don’t understand it. Having a 5th gear made sense – it was a good highway gear – but 6 gears is just a little bit of overkill I think, especially in an ordinary car like the New Beetle.

With 6 gears, I found the transmission working very hard to shift very rapidly through the gears every time I pulled away from a stoplight. The time the car spent in first gear was probably less than a half a second, and likewise for second gear. Given this, why bother having the gears at all?

I suppose you could make the case for more gears = better fuel economy (since the car can choose a gear ratio that better matches the speed/engine RPM), but if fuel economy is your goal, why not just go with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) and cut out the need for gears altogether?

The other downside of having 6 gears is that when you use the “triptonic” feature of the transmission to do the gear shifting yourself, you have to do a lot more work! Maybe it’s just me, but I think 6 gears is probably one too many for this car. If I had to choose, I’d stick with the 5 speed manual in this car.

Another interesting (but possibly pointless) feature of the transmission in this car was it’s “Sport” mode. Right after “D” on the transmission lever was a “S,” which a quick double-check with the manual confirmed is “Sport” mode. Essentially, “Sport” mode just shifts later – or to put it another way, it stays in (numerically) lower gears longer than the normal “Drive” mode does. This is a clever feature, but honestly a bit pointless when the transmission already has a manual sequential “triptonic” mode!

Another potentially annoying feature of this car is it’s steering. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the steering on the road is quite good and very responsive – easy to drive would be how I’d describe it – but when it comes to parking, things get a little weird. Given that this is a small car, you’d expect it to be able to turn on a dime – and it does indeed have a pretty good turning radius. However… you have to turn the steering wheel quite a bit in order to get that good turning radius. Which makes it a bit useless – tight turning cars are only useful in city driving and parking lots if you don’t have to spend 5 minutes spinning the steering wheel one way and then the other. So, a black mark against the Beetle there.

Finally, it is worth noting that as a small car the New Beetle feels kind of… cheap in some ways. The interior is nice enough, but the dashboard is one gigantic expanse of flat black plastic. And the dimpled plastic on the steering wheel seems like it would give you a good grip, but after a while it just feels awful.

And although I may have said earlier that the New Beetle would give you a comfortable ride on a long trip, what it won’t give you is a quiet ride. Engine noise is quite pronounced and very noticeable, especially when accelerating, and at highways speeds the combination of engine and road noise is almost unbearable. Thank goodness the stock stereo in this car has an AUX jack for your iPod, because you’ll want to keep music playing all the time to drown out the noise, noise, NOISE!

However, I digress… in truth, the Volkwagen New Beetle is a nice little car, if you don’t expect too much from it. If you like it’s looks (and really, isn’t that half the draw of the New Beetle for most people anyway?) you probably won’t be disappointed.

But I wouldn’t want one.