x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Volkswagen Beetle's manly makeunder is a disappointment

Road Test Through trying to appeal more to men, the new Beetle loses the distinguishing characteristics that made it so popular.

The Beetle is less distinctive than before, with several compromises. Newspress
The Beetle is less distinctive than before, with several compromises. Newspress

I've always been comfortable with my feminine side. Perhaps it's just the self-confidence that comes with having spent countless hundreds of rounds sparring younger and more talented boxers. Or maybe my self-assurance is simply the by-product of repeatedly telling myself that I don't need to brake quite yet while the 1,000cc superbike beneath me screams past a hellishly dangerous 250kph.

Whatever the case, I simply don't find myself fastidiously guarding my manliness against any slight, real or perceived.

Which is why I had no problem with the first generation "New Beetle". Unabashedly feminine, I loved its cute little bubble shape, the pastel colours that Volkswagen teed up for its launch and even that little flower vase that so many manly men thought might reduce their testosterone level a digit too far. Honestly, you'd have thought you were asking them to enjoy their prostate exam.

So, now we have the third generation and the most marked difference between it and previous versions is that its silhouette is said to be sportier, a cue to those of the XY chromosome that it was all right to shop Beetle.

Yes, the shape is still 100 per cent recognisable as a Bug, but the entire roofline looks like it's been squished down, the look more long and lean as if merely squeezing its bubbled shape will somehow transform it into a wedge-shaped sports car.

The problem is that the New Beetle never has been, and will doubtfully ever be, a sports car. Certainly, the 2012 2.5L version I drove (a 2.0L Turbo is also available) did not exude much in the way of thrilling driving. For one thing, the 2.5L inline five is perhaps the most agricultural engine in the entire Volkswagen Group line-up.

Quite why VW persists with this engine when it is so universally panned and the Japanese have proven that inline fours can be sophisticated in displacements up to 2.5L (the five cylinder came about because Volkswagen thought that 2.5L stretched the limits of four-cylinder design) is a mystery. It's buzzy, rough and, at 170hp, not particularly powerful. Zero to 100kph is in the 10 second range - not exactly part of the sports car persona that VW says it's trying to build with this latest Beetle.

Its suspension is more in keeping with that sporting intent, though. The MacPherson struts up front and transverse link rear axle with stabiliser bars are set up firm - but not overly harsh - and keep roll to a minimum.

Understeer is also kept to a minimum and traction control and electronic stability control are standard.

Unfortunately, the Beetle's steering is waaaay overboosted. In fact, the 2012 Beetle may be the lightest-steering passenger car I've ever tested from Germany; it reminds me of the mid-1990s Honda steering systems we all lamented so. It's so light that I found it quite darty on the motorway, a long way from the rock-solid stability that is supposed to be endemic to the Teutonic driving experience.

And now that the Beetle's interior has gone mainstream, it doesn't look any different - save perhaps for the body-coloured dash panels that remind me of Dodge's ill-advised Caliber - than any other Volkswagen.

It continues to have some of the Beetle's traditional rear seat headroom (comfortable for two people without bulky luggage, but not four full-sized adults) and compromised boot limitations (it's about 25 per cent roomier but football/hockey duffel bags still challenge it).

Indeed, for me, that's the problem with the latest Beetle. The new, more male-friendly shape and equipment don't leave enough twists and turns to its styling and decor to distinguish it enough from mainstream automobiles and yet it retains most of the foibles that its shape engenders.

Yes, it's still different, but it's now a little less distinctive. What little personality does remain does not make up for its compromises. Besides, what kind of guy wants to drive a car that constantly reminds him that they had to butch up a girlie-girl's ride so his manhood wouldn't be threatened?

Base price Not available

Engine 2.5L inline five cylinder

Gearbox Six-speed manual

Power 170 hp @ 5,700 rpm

Torque 240Nm @ 4,250rpm

Fuel economy, combined 8.2L/100km