Vw's New Beetle: Still Groovy After All These Years

How important is the look of your car? If design turns you on, Volkswagen's New Beetle is the ultimate. Like the original Bug, the 1998 Beetle is a study in symmetry. Its rounded fenders, curved silhouette, and oversize oval headlamps and taillights are radically different from anything else on the road. At about $16,500 for a typically equipped Bug, vw should have no problem meeting its U.S. target of 50,000 annual sales. Dealers already are inundated with orders for the car, which is made in Mexico and goes on sale in late March.

FLOWER POWER. Like its venerable predecessor, the new Bug wears its quirky personality well. What other car comes equipped with a whimsical bud vase on the dashboard? In the Bug, it works. This is a cuddly car meant to conjure up dreamy memories of the flower power of the 1960s. Its message: You can still be groovy and hip--even with house payments, kids, and a 9-to-5 job. But you need more than image once you're on the road. While the car turned heads during a recent test-drive around Atlanta, I found the New Beetle adequate but hardly spectacular.

The Bug's interior delights and disappoints. The instrument panel sports a single round pod with a huge speedometer flanked by a tiny, hard-to-read fuel gauge and tachometer. The top of the dash is a deep, flat expanse of black plastic, making the windshield seem as far away as in a minivan, while the brightly colored interior windowsills appear prone to chips and scratches.

The seats are firm and comfortable, and provide plenty of leg- and headroom for the driver and front-seat passenger. A switch flips the seats down and forward, allowing easy entrance to the rear. But legroom is skimpy in the back, and if you're six feet tall, your head will bump the roof when the Bug hits a pothole. Even so, the ride is much smoother than the old Bug's. The hatchback trunk can accommodate only a couple of small suitcases, though the rear seat handily folds down for extra storage.

Air-conditioning, a six-speaker stereo, front and side air bags, and an antitheft system are all standard. Options include antilock brakes, power sunroof, leather seats, and a four-speed automatic transmission. The power-assisted steering is light and responsive, and the four-wheel disk brakes grip well.

The Beetle's performance is similar to that of the VW Golf, on which it's based. You'll initially have a choice of two water-cooled engines, located up front, instead of the old Bug's air-cooled power plants in the back. The base 2.0-liter unit puts out 115 horsepower but little low-end power, so accelerating is draggy. A 1.9-liter turbodiesel is available as an option, but performance-hungry buyers may want to wait for a 1.8-liter turbo due this fall--that engine kicks out a far more satisfying 150 horsepower. The four-speed automatic transmission ($875 extra) feels sluggish, particularly accelerating uphill. The five-speed manual seems the better choice. Despite all the glass in the swooping side windows, wind noise is pleasingly absent, even at 80 mph.

In a market flooded with banal designs and look-alike models, the New Beetle stands out from other sub-$20,000 autos. Spare me the love beads and peace signs, but the car does hit an emotional note. Driving it isn't nearly as much fun as, say, a Mazda Miata. But if you yearn for car that makes you smile, there is a lot to love in the new Bug.