Here’s some Jalopnik sacrilege: I was given a 2015 Volkswagen Beetle with a diesel engine, and a manual transmission. And I have no idea if I like it. But that’s mainly because I don’t understand German humor.
Yeah, I know that’s the worst of what you’re expecting. You read reviews because you want to hear that a car is a SMASHING SUCCESS YOUR MOVE BMW or that it’s the worst drivel anyone’s ever driven, but really, what we’ve been given here is a strange attempt at entertainment.
And to that end, I recognize that it means be fun for someone. Just maybe not for me.
(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen wanted me to drive a Beetle with a diesel and a manual transmission so badly that when we asked for a GTI, and they offered me a Beetle with a diesel and a manual transmission instead. Also, they dropped it off at the office with a full tank just before Memorial Day weekend.)
When I was brought on board to work full-time with los Jalops, I fully understood the mission, the heritage, and the religious icons involved. I had been reading pretty much from day one, when we were all just followers of a weird website with a weirder name and occasional commenters on the alternate-dimension forums of Supercars.net. There are rules in place, you see, sacred calves that shall not be sacrificed under any circumstance.
They were, in no particular order:
That’s because if you are given a diesel, manual, brown, Beetle, wagon, preferably rear-engined, you should be properly expected to never drive another car again. That was a Beautiful Commandment, and still is very much so to this day, for a car befitting all of those attributes is the best car in the world. And rightly so, as it pushes all the right buttons. The engine is in the
wrong right place, it gives you gobs full of torque, it’s practical, it’s fun, it’s tastefully colored, and it’s a ridiculously unique Car of the People while still selling in the millions.
It is, in short, the Holy Grail.
Seeing that we, the Unhinged Arbiters of Bad and Amazing Taste, wanted our perfect car, Volkswagen appears to have had a plan. They would attempt to do the impossible. While they couldn’t offer a car built to our very specific and exacting and completely unreasonable and bizarre and absolutely right standards, they could come pretty close.
They could offer a diesel, manual, Beetle.
Okay, so they couldn’t offer a Beetle wagon, because that would be too absurd. And they couldn’t make it brown, because then all the other publications would catch on that they were trying to make a car specifically for us, the nutters of the world, and that isn’t very sportsmanlike. And they couldn’t make it rear-engined, because that’s only barely a thing these days.
But still, pretty damn close.
Because to the Volkswagen of today thinks that what makes a Beetle a Beetle is that a car’s fenders are cartoonishly curved, and also it has two doors. But if we’re being honest, what makes a Beetle a Beetle is that it’s kinda quirky and weird. And quirky and weird is definitely not what this Beetle is.
And quirky and weird is exactly what a diesel, manual Beetle should be.
But instead, it’s just, well, good. It is a Very Good Car. Volkswagen, you can take that one to the bank. Use it in ads, for all I care. Just like this, if you want:
The Volkswagen Beetle with a diesel and a manual transmission is a Very Good Car.
Which is exactly the problem. It’s a very good car. In fact, nothing’s wrong with it. Absolutely nothing, zero, zilch, nichts is an abberation at all.
The heart of the problem lies with exactly what this Beetle is, actually. Because it’s not a Beetle at all. And though that’s not a new complaint or gripe, and is rather completely unoriginal ever since the New Beetle was introduced in 1997, it still holds true. Because this isn’t some rear-engined, air-cooled, clattery woodland creature.
It’s a Golf. A Volkswagen Golf. Specifically, it’s based on the last-generation golf, with a funky re-skin the way you used to do winAmp back in 1999. It is, underneath it all, a hatchback which is designed to get people and their things to and from destinations with no fuss, no muss, and nary any hint of unreliability. And it’s all designed, in an intellectual way, to what someone who had no idea what “fun” was would design a car for people who liked this alien concept of “fun.”
Allow me to use the Fender-branded audio system as a metaphor for what I’m talking about. Fender is a widely respected company, especially when it comes to guitars. Guitars play loud music. Guitars often play good music. But Fender isn’t known for its high-fidelity audio systems, not in the way that a company like Bose or JBL or Bang & Olufson is. But someone at Volkswagen clearly took the time to think, “oh, people who like music like music that is produced by Fender things, thus they will like our Fender-branded speakers.”
The end result is something which feels like a completely inauthentic brand exercise. If Volkswagen wanted us to think that it was high-fidelity music, it would spring for the Bose and the JBL and the Bangs & Olufsons of this world. But if it wanted us to think that its sound system was fun?
Well then it would make up its own ridiculous name, really.
And that mentality carries through to everything in the car. Everything in the interior is styled very functionally, in a utilitarian sense. It’s all a little too well thought-out. The navigation system works beautifully, from the way you can enter Points of Interest just by making typos and having fat fingers like you normally do and having it figure it out, to the way you can cancel an ongoing route with the touch of one button, a near unfathomable concept in most cars. It can point you towards the nearest fuel station and restaurant automatically, but there’s no button for the nearest beach or drug dealer.
Then there’s the engine, and the transmission. As a combination, they are wonderful. Sublime. The 2.0-liter 150 horsepower 236 pound-feet of torque four-pot mill is buttery smooth, at the right RPMs. From 1500 to 3500 revolutions, it sings. It pulls. It seems to make you lunge forward into the scenery at the pace of gravity.
But, modern-day Volkswagen being modern-day Volkswagen, rather than performance, it’s geared towards efficiency. Yes, that means you’ve got a frankly astounding range. I drove my loaner over four hundred miles in five days, and I still had over a quarter of a tank left. Even after driving it in an *ahem* spirited manner.
The 14.5-gallon fuel tank, combined with the EPA-rated 41 MPG gallon means you have a theoretical range of nearly 600 miles, which is astronomical in a car as small as this.
The transmission itself is fantastic, with a clutch that always has a clear engagement point and is somehow the ultimate balance of firm-but-not-so-much-that-you-hate-your-knee-after-30-minutes. The shifter’s throws are short and willing, though it never strays too far into the snick-snick realm of what you get on a Honda.
Everything feels well-engineered, like a thousand people have been employed just to get the right haptic feedback on one little spring.
And that, I suppose, is the problem. It was a little too perfect. Because it felt very much like a European Golf in a funny suit.
It felt, in short, like an appliance with extra curves in the fenders. As my colleague Raphael Orlove (he himself of years of Beetle ownership) put it, it felt like one of those brand spanking-new very high-tech washing machines that some Senior Vice President of design has decided to paint red.
Which appeals to a lot of people! It does! And I see the appeal. Every so often, you need an appliance in your life, and you don’t want to feel dead inside, so you paint your appliance red.
But a Beetle shouldn’t feel like an appliance.
It should feel like a Beetle. It should be weird. It should be different. It should make Robert S. McNamara (RIP) wonder why you’re buying it.
Instead, it feels cynical. Like a Golf with silly fenders. Like a weird joke that I understand that someone’s making, but still don’t quite get.
Like someone designed the perfect car for me on paper, without understanding why it was the perfect car for me in real life.
And while yes, I would still very much drive this car, because it’s still pretty damn good with its diesel and its manual transmission, I’m not sure I would own one. Because when I want an appliance, I want an appliance.
And when I want diesel, manual Golf, I want a diesel, manual Golf. But when I want a Beetle, I want a Beetle.
Even if it feels like this Beetle has been designed exactly for me.
Photos credit: Raphael Orlove/Michael Ballaban/Jalopnik