Is Volkswagen’s new Beetle R a somewhat squashed Bug?

Steve Paugh takes the 2014 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo R along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway in California, but finds that the latest version of the best-selling, iconic Bug is lacking a little something.
The latest Beetle, pictured on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, remains a ‘cute’ car, despite the 2014 model’s notably more powerful silhouette and attempts to reposition it as a more ‘masculine’ proposition. Courtesy Volkswagen
The latest Beetle, pictured on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, remains a ‘cute’ car, despite the 2014 model’s notably more powerful silhouette and attempts to reposition it as a more ‘masculine’ proposition. Courtesy Volkswagen

If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s this: California can be a pretty convincing place. The weather always seems to be right, the people are (for the most part) glamorous and, regardless of whether you are in San Francisco, Santa Monica or Los Angeles itself, the environs of The Golden State sing with a charisma that other places simply do not inspire. Interestingly enough, and as hard-pressed as this may seem as a link, the same could be said for the Volkswagen Beetle.

No, seriously. If you think about it, California and the Beetle have a lot in common. For one, each is fun-loving and utterly unserious (in a good way), and they have both made their respective fame on a certain, shall we say, body type. Perhaps more importantly, however, in each, there’s a long tradition of storytelling, a narrative that keeps the spirit of each alive. If you’ve spent time in Los Angeles, you will have a story to tell. The same is true of a VW Bug.

It’s really no surprise, then, that Volkswagen Middle East decided to choose perhaps the most convincing part of California – the elegantly undulating, cursive and curvaceous Pacific Coast Highway (a gorgeous furrow of tales in its own right) – to unfold what it maintains is a modern retelling of the Beetle story; one they would like you to believe puts more stock in masculine vim than hippy-dippy flower vases (yes, those are gone). But could even America’s most persuasive place make the case that this new Beetle has changed the nature of its own state?

It would be a difficult thing, indeed, not to fall in love with the stunning, southbound drive along California’s famed Route 1 coastal highway in any car, really. Saying that, when you’re not devouring the oceanfront scenery or lingering over the breathtaking vistas that hang over cliffs like the thin haze of mist that sits nonchalantly above sternly crashing waves, you’re going to want a car robust enough to carve and slice against the road’s buxom curves. And to its credit, the 2014 Beetle does that.

This isn’t the original flavour Beetle – as we experienced first hand on our trip after bumping into two home-grown aficionados who were in the midst of fixing up a 1970 model – nor is it even VW’s 1997 revitalisation project, the so-called “New” Beetle. Despite boasting a more streamlined echo of the styling cues so iconic in its first two iterations, this is a Bug with a bit more sting.

The well-planned trek VW laid before us sees a caravan of Gulf-based journalists careering down the Coast Highway from San Francisco to Santa Monica over two days, and if the above has not already sold you on such a journey, it bears repeating that this is a trip that any autophile or even casual driver should take once in his or her life. It really is that gorgeous.

It’s also a fun drive, made all the more so in this case thanks to the 2014 Beetle’s 2.0L, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine and standard six-speed manual (or optional six-speed, dual-clutch automatic) gearbox, marked improvements from the models of yesteryear, especially when considered alongside 210 ponies and a top-speed potential of 227kph.

Effortless to control and smooth-going around the Cali coastal route’s renowned and ubiquitous turns, this new Bug proves to be – as was foretold before even entering the car – “quite zippy” and enjoys the fun ethos so inextricably tied to the model. At the same time, though, it also feels safe and a far cry from the “toy car” mentality for which it was once, perhaps wrongfully, known. Saying that, the R turbo models at our disposal on this trip are all equipped with 19-inch alloy wheels, just one of the reasons that this car feels unnaturally heavy.

Don’t take that the wrong way – the power is absolutely there in the Beetle and will rear its head when forced, but it does take a bit of effort. Once it gets going along one of our chosen road’s rarer straightaways, it could really move; it simply takes a hair or two longer than you might expect to get there, given its specs. Whenever we do hit a bit of traffic, though, the Beetle handles well, if not notably, as an ideal means of conveyance through the daily grind. But make no mistake, this car does like to go.

Luckily, the only chance at a brake-check is undertaken while enjoying the Beetle’s speed with perhaps too much enthusiasm around a mountain pass with an audience of looming redwood trees, but the anti-lock disc brakes, Golf-boosted independent suspension and cross-differential system do their respective jobs of getting us out of what the engine tempted so devilishly, and we’re able to shift easily back into our seats, none the worse for wear.

Speaking of which, the interior of the 2014 Beetle is one that’s easy to settle into, especially within the Turbo version. Lined with subtle chrome trappings, the gunmetal-cool cockpit belies its still slightly cutesy exterior. On a road trip like this one, the sunroof and significant sound system are key, as are the leather-upholstered sport seats and navigation package, but so too is the function-festooned steering wheel, which provides even more optimum control of the interior environment without too much faffing about with the well-appointed dash. The ample space is also more than welcome for at least two passengers, though the rear quarters leave something to be desired in a car this size; but not detrimentally so.

Back to the outside, this is a great-looking car. It is, after all, a Beetle – longer, perhaps, and, yes, wider, with a decidedly more pronounced front and back-end prowl, but it still looks like it’s smiling at you, now with a more noticeable squint. It’s not an intimidating-looking car, which is part of its charm, though calling it “masculine” is a bit of a misnomer. More on that in a second.

Despite having an impressive output, under the bonnet is where the group finds one of the strangest complaints heard around the trip (made less unusual, perhaps, being that it was populated by hard-core motoring journalists). The engine, many felt, did not “sound powerful” enough to impress; an odd thing to desire in a Beetle, but both this and its visual cues are what is interesting with the expectation VW is setting; that this car’s visual and driving presence is more custom-tailored for the gear-headed guys. Here’s the thing: it really isn’t.

Now, perhaps in this day and age, where masculinity is itself a dying beast, the new Beetle’s silhouette could be considered marginally more virile, and, as with every car (regardless of gender-based marketing), definitely more powerful. But let’s be honest; despite how desperately Volkswagen wants to convince you of the contrary, the Beetle is, and always will be, a “cute” car.

That’s not a bad thing – not at all– and as we’re often reminded on the trip, it’s part of the Beetle’s heritage and why it elicits such a powerful narrative in its passionately dedicated fan base. The Beetle is a car (and indeed design) steeped in the personal anecdote, instantly memorable, but also pretty adorable.

Some of that should still be embraced, but it seems like the design team, while making the car more powerful, have also sacrificed some of what made it so special to drive. In the end, as mentioned above, the 2014 Beetle is a fun car, but it’s also largely forgettable when compared to others in its class. Other than the remnants of shape, the rhythm and tenor of its drive feels all-too familiar – comfortable, yes, and powerful, but will this car inspire the same stories that its forebears once did? Well, no, probably not, but then again, that’s the 21st-century world in which we live. Old stories tend to pale beneath the harsh light of remakes.

At the same time, and appreciating the lengths to which the design team went in establishing a less-kitsch, more modern look, the newest evolution in this Bug’s life may not be as timeless as the original, but it’s nevertheless a much more streamlined affair than the 1990s relaunch, which arguably was so successful because it kept those base elements.

It remains to be seen how well the 2014 Beetle will do in the Middle East, where bigger, more imposing cars still reign, but chances are that despite the R’s heightened power and improved ride, it will still largely appeal to the demographic that it always has. Barring the presence of any surviving hippies, of whom, it can be assumed, there are fairly few in the Gulf region.

Young families and those drivers looking for a smooth canter that’s better suited for a hoot than hauling tail will love the look and feel of this car, and as such, it will boast some excellent surprises. The 2014 Beetle is a much more powerful yet controlled beast than it used to be and it remains a fun, if not iconic, ride. However, when set beside the continuing story of California’s coast, let alone that of the Bug’s ancestors, its overall tale as something different, something special, may have inadvertently been squashed.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Published: May 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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