by David Zatz
Not long ago, Sergio Marchionne said that the Dodge Dart will be dropped when its lifecycle ends, and replaced with a competitor’s car. Allpar decided to see what might work; this is our first test.
The Beetle is based on the Golf and Jetta; and I hate to admit that I liked it from the first block. It isn’t a Dart replacement, but the closely related Jetta could be.
Moving from the Fiat 500X to the Beetle, it felt like we’d dropped over a thousand pounds from the car (the two are actually close in weight; the Fiat has more interior and storage space). The Beetle is smoother, and more agile, not to mention less eccentric... and cheaper than the AWD 500X we’d been in. Over time, we discovered lousy aerodynamics and some other quirks, but it remained enjoyable.
The Beetle is low to the ground (the Dune was lifted by 0.4 inches and had a 0.6-inch wider track), but we didn’t scrape on some sharp ramps that have caused problems for other test cars. The new design is much easier on the occupants than past Beetles, with good headroom and an open feel, and a windshield pushed further away from the driver. The seats were a serious problem for my back over time.
The standard 1.8 liter turbocharged engine pumps out 170 horsepower; it’s easy to drive gently and reap good mileage, but you can also floor it and, after a brief lag, fly away. It feels more powerful than Dodge Darts (other than the GT), has more torque over a wider band, and delivers better mileage — 25 city, 34 highway — on regular gas. City mileage requires a little discipline in such a willing little car, and on the highway, passing 65 carries a hefty penalty, but it’s still good mileage for such a responsive engine. It’s not a Hemi but it’s still willing.
The engine has most of its torque from 1,500 rpm into the 4,000s, but horsepower builds more slowly. You still launch very quickly, and on the highway, it’s rare to have too slow a reaction.
The six-speed transmission is a conventional model; the 2-liter cars have an auto-shifted manual (DSG). It has both a sport mode and a manual override. When you have your foot on the brake, it seems to go into Neutral; lift your foot and it quickly shifts into gear and slowly rolls forward. It’s controllable, smooth, and free of lag. Sometimes it felt a bit funny when coasting and then gently applying the gas. The fast, smooth shifts gave the car a sportier feel.
The transmission has a wide ratio, with first at a low 4.46:1 and sixth at 0.67:1, so that you benefit both from good launches and low engine revs at highway speeds. The Dart is wide, but not quite as wide, ranging from 4.21 in first to 0.77 in sixth; if you get the Dart Aero you get a wider range, and if you get a Dart stick you get a narrower range.
The shifter is a straight line from P-R-N-D-S, making it too easy to get into Sport by mistake. Volkswagen may be trying to keep us in Sport to avoid turbo lag and that “rubber band” feel where you get nothing on tapping the gas, then the engine snaps into play; and because, at times, Normal mode lugs the engine (tries for power at too low an engine speed). Sport mode is fun but keeps the transmission in lower gears, eating fuel; and sometimes feels weird for holding a low gear much longer than you’d expect. This calls for a sport button or dial.
Eventually, I started using the sequential shifter instead of the automatic modes; it works very quickly and smoothly, and lets me get those fast kickdowns I want without keeping the transmission in too high a gear (lugging) or too low a gear (noise and fuel-guzzling).
The Beetle Dune is a ball to whip around corners, with a light feel that Fiat Chrysler has gotten too far away from, and great traction. The ride is luxurious on smooth roads, filtering out minor bumps and jiggles (though letting larger ones through, admittedly without bouncing); but the Volkswagen Beetle feels light and invites you to take sharp turns at high speeds, rewarding you with decent g-forces and little to no squealing. Railroad tracks are no problem either in bouncing around or in bottoming out, and despite the low ground clearance, you can easily handle sharp ramps.
What’s more, the Beetle isn’t just a fun city car; it’s a competent highway cruiser that’s easy to drive at speed on the vast concrete and blacktop roads of North America, without a lot of noise or fuss. It feels fully under control, not wiggly or jiggly, not noisy, just stable and ready to pop out at a moment’s notice. The Dune’s special steering wheel helps, along with natural feeling power steering.
Noise is minor at low speeds, but once you pass 55, the wind noise gets louder and louder, making 65 seem like 95 in some cars; the aerodynamics of the Beetle are nothing to write home about, which is probably why that 160 mph speedometer is so unnecessary.
Overall, the combination of ride and handling was very, very good. This is a fun car to drive — more so than the standard Dart.
The headlights are decent enough, with automatic cornering lights that turn on when you turn the steering wheel or signal. Rear turn signals are amber-colored for safety and style. Visibility is generally good; the tiny sun visors work well enough and slide out as needed.
The single-dial Beetle dashboard is history; the center dial is huge, with a 160 mph speedometer up top and a hefty black and white trip computer below. The letters are highly readable and it’s not hard to instantly figure out your speed due to the sheer size of the gauge. It’s not backlit unless you have your headlights on, and you can’t turn on just the interior or parking lights... it’s headlights or nothing.
The trip computer was intuitive and easy to use, with Chrysler-like features but easier to read “print.” It shows gas mileage, range, distance, travel time, oil temperature, and such, and lets you set a speed warning (e.g. 80 mph, not “15 over.”) Volkswagen doesn’t have quite as many settings as FCA in the trip computer or in the center screen.
The other controls were generally sensible, including the half-modern, half-retro climate control (dual automatic temperature control using knobs for fast, easy settings), steering wheel audio/trip computer/phone controls, stalks (once you decode the hieroglyphs), and vents. The red-backlit, thin lettering on many controls was hard to read, nearly impossible at night.
The snazzy “leatherette” seats, with a cloth-like pattern (not visible in the photo) and the PT Cruiser-like body-color panels on the doors and dashboard worked well together. The huge sunroof only opened about halfway, but had VW’s clever dial setup so you just turned it as far as you wanted it to open, in a quick twist, and the sunroof obeyed at its own pace. Volkswagen’s inane, slow, awkwardly placed crank for changing seat tilt is still in place after at least forty years; and the parking brake hits the center console.
Reaching back to get the seat belt is painful, and getting in and out is made harder by the long doors. Frameless windows help; the windows jerk down slightly when you open the doors, then reseal when the doors are closed.
Two normally sized people can be on the same side of the car, and the “memory seats” worked surprisingly well, which is to say, they worked as they were supposed to. Still, this is not a roomy car.
The trunk is reasonably sized, but not as large as the EPA ratings would suggest, unless you load it up to the glass. Still, it easily swallows a family’s groceries; it’s conveniently sized and the hatchback design makes it easy to load.
CarPlay comes with the Dune, complete with cables. Music selection is a little easier; using Siri to send messages or call people was easy and intuitive, and Maps has easy to read labels, though without any bells and whistles. I would have preferred the +/- buttons to show up at all times. The system could pull music from iCloud, using your phone’s data plan. Android and Windows folk can use the respective software for their phones, too.
Fender audio, a $1,000 option on most Beetles and (we think) included in the Dune package, was a fine setup, clear as a bell, with good stereo separation, clarify, and overall sound quality.
You can jack up the bass if you want, but it won’t force thudding bass on you. You can use music from your phone, a USB drive, or an SD card; the only glitch we found was that, when we did not bring a paired phone, the system would try to pair with anyone else’s phone (say, across the street), and lose its place on the USB drive. Fortunately, the voice command system works well.
Satellite radio is also included but the sound quality is not the same, due to high compression at SiriusXM.
The 6.3 inch touch screen (the largest available in the Golf) works well, and the text is large enough to read easily; unlike Chrysler’s system, when you pop up a level from your music list, it remembers where you were, though it also has an extra step (bottom of the screen for Selection, top of the screen for a tiny folder icon).
The backup camera has far too wide an angle, and isn’t especially bright, making it hard to use. We ended up reverting to the mirrors to back up. One nice feature: the camera only appeared when we reversed, hiding itself under the VW emblem (which is also the trunk latch) to avoid getting covered in mud, water, or snow.
This photo shows the mix of old and new climate control elements; it’s easy to use the knobs to quickly change the temperature or fan. It’s a well designed system that works as you’d expect it to, without excess noise.
We were testing the $23,995 Dune model with options we can’t price — we did not get a sticker and the Dune doesn’t appear on Volkswagen’s web site. That said, the base price of the Beetle, with the same powertrain, is $19,795. There is no manual transmission until you get to the 210-horsepower sport model, starting at $25,995.
The Beetle Dune, new for 2016, has a slightly wider track than normal Beetles, along with a mildly raised suspension; it also includes a unique and “love/hate” Sandstorm Yellow (mustard) color option, black honeycomb front grille, and a wheel design. Interior touches are special seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, the 6.3 inch touch-screen stereo, rear view camera, and a rear parking sensor.
The base Beetle is nothing to sneeze at; it has a premium price but a good ride, decent power, and a high fun factor. Still, if you can live without the retrocute looks, a Jetta or Golf is a better deal, with far more usable space and better aerodynamics.
Our car had the fine Fender® Premium Audio System, (which we think is just under $1,000 on non-Dune cars), automatic climate control, keyless access with pushbutton start, and sunroof, part of a $1,695 technology package. An optional lighting package for $795 would have given us HID headlights. We also had a parking camera and front parking sensors which may or may not be standard — Volkswagen does not make it easy to find out.
Based on our drive in the Beetle, Dodge could do worse than to partner with Volkswagen, especially if they could use their own Hurricane engines (because engines do matter to company loyalists), though not the 2.4 or 1.4; spend the few cents extra for a parking-lights position on the knob; and make some minor changes here and there. Messing around too much would hurt — the light feel is not something I’d want to lose, for one thing. Let’s not forget the Routan. Unless we’re a Volkswagen dealer.
I still believe that FCA could, given the resources, probably do it themselves. Chrysler has pulled itself up by the bootstraps, over and over, from the day Walter Chrysler took over Maxwell Motors to the mid-1990s renaissance that attracted Daimler’s malevolent attention.
Summarizing the Volkswagen Beetle 1.8 versus the Dart 2.0 and 2.4: The Beetle is much faster, better-cushioned, and handles better, but the aerodynamics are terrible and some may find the transmisison to be quirky. The Dart is quieter, more comfortable, has more usable interior and trunk space, and can be optioned better. The 210 horsepower Beetle R is far above the Dart GT in performance and doesn’t give up much gas mileage. This was not a pleasant paragraph for an old Mopar hand to write.
* 2.4 Dart vs 1.8 Beetle. Dart has three engines, Beetle has two.** I suspect this is if you measure all the way up to the window
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