June 05--The three-star 2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line two-door hatchback adds style and performance to VW's signature retro car.
A successful retro design is a tough act to follow. How do you do a new version of a car that borrows from an old and immediately recognizable design? That conundrum is at least part of the reason Chrysler and Chevrolet never built a second generation of the PT Cruiser or HHR.
The current Beetle is the third generation since VW revived the historic Beetle name and look in 1997. The R-Line replaces the Beetle turbo for 2014.
In addition to new badges, bumpers and interior trim, the R-Line features a turbocharged 2.0L engine with 210 horsepower, 10 more than last year. Torque is unchanged at 207 lb.-ft., but fuel economy improves a noteworthy 2 miles per gallon in the EPA's rating of combined city and highway driving.
Beetle prices start at $20,295 for a base model with a new 170-hp 1.8L four-cylinder engine that replaces VW's lame 2.5L five-cylinder. The base Beetle has a five-speed manual transmission. Beetles with six-speed automatic transmissions and the 1.8L start at $21,395.
The R-Line gets a six-speed manual for $24,995 or a dual-clutch automatic for $26,095. A fuel-efficient TDI turbodiesel starts at $24,595. The sporty-looking GSR gets the same engine as the R-Line, but adds other features for a base price of $29,995 with a manual and $31,095 for the dual clutch.
The Beetle R-Line I tested featured a sun roof and upgraded sound system. It stickered at $27,895. All prices exclude destination charges.
The R-Line and GSR's main competitors are sporty compacts such as the Acura ILX, Audi A3, Buick Verano turbo, Dodge Dart GT, Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, Mercedes CLA 250, the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX and VW's own Golf GTI, which just launched an all-new 2015 model.
The Beetle R-Line's main selling points are its looks, roomy front seat, sporty handling and acceleration. The chassis is a particular strength, with sharp, responsive steering and surefooted road holding. The engine revs smoothly and the shifter's tight pattern encourages enthusiastic driving.
The competitors offer either more power, more features or both for the money. My R-Line lacked features many competitors offered, including backup camera, blind spot alert and navigation. Most surprising, curtain air bags to protect the rear occupants' heads in side collisions are not available. The driver and front passenger benefit from seat-mounted air bags to protect their thorax and head.
VW's voice-recognition and touch screen controls have caught up with the competition. Both are easy to use and a major improvement.
But the quality of hands-free phone calls is bad enough to be a deal-breaker for anyone who uses that feature regularly. Everyone I called complained about a distracting echo.
The interior of my test car looked good, with black fabric upholstery and faux carbon fiber trim. The dash and door tops were covered in hard plastic, a surprise from the brand that once forced other automakers to embrace soft-touch materials. The hatchback provides plenty of cargo space. Rear leg room is limited, but head room's fine.
The new engine's EPA fuel economy rating of 23 m.p.g. in the city, 31 on the highway and 26 in combined driving is in the middle of the pack. It needs premium fuel for that and its specified power, as do its European and Japanese competitors. The EPA certified the Verano turbo, Dart GT and Focus ST with regular gasoline. The Buick and Ford will both lose some power on that fuel, however.
The Beetle's new body style debuted in 2011. It's one of the better updates for a retro-styled vehicle. A long hood and crisp character lines just below the windows make a strong impression.
The Beetle R-line is a solid mid-pack sporty small car. It may suit anyone whose taste for retro extends to the days before a mobile phone was their constant companion.
Contact Mark Phelan: email@example.com or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.
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Original headline: Detroit Free Press Mark Phelan column
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