When I was told by Volkswagen that I’d have a car available during my trip to Germany for their massive Beetle festival, I assumed it would probably be just something from the regular press fleet. Maybe a Golf, or, if they were feeling a bit more fun, one of the current Beetles. I clearly underestimated VW’s capacity for fun, because what greeted me was a giant blue ball of bonkers.
That big blue orb of distilled, weaponized fun was a Beetle RSi, a limited run (only 250 — well, 251, if you count the #000 show car) New Beetle derivative that, among other things, crammed a VR6 into the Bug’s rounded little snout.
When I first saw the valet bring the car around, I laughed out loud — I wish there was some sort of acronym for that — and it was the kind of laugh you might give if someone says, hey, come meet my chihuahua, and out steps a four-foot tall, rapidly quivering dog wearing a Daft Punk helmet.
Those of you familiar with the Beetle RSi may be noticing something odd here — this car is blue. While being blue isn’t exactly unheard of in cardom (I believe the legendary Youabian Puma experimented with such a color) it is pretty much unheard of for the 250 other RSi’s made — those were all silver.
Except this one, number 002 out of 250. This one just happened to be made for former VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech, and at that time Piech had a thing where he only owned blue cars. I think it had to do with some sort of latent Cookie Monster fetish, though that’s never been substantiated. I don’t think I realized how rare this particular car was until my contact at VW told me over the phone “so, you know, don’t crash it.”
There goes that story idea. Fiiine.
The Beetle RSi was a Europe-only model, and while I bet some have made it to the US, this was the first time I’d actually seen one in the metal and plastic and leather. Design-wise, it really can’t be missed, because it looks clinically and provably bonkers. And that’s ‘bonkers’ used in its most positive connotation.
The dramatic new front and rear bumpers/spoilers, the enlarged side sills, and that double-tiered spoiler/wing — the top box section chute shunting air down to the massive whale tail — all of these very, very obvious bits actually have real aerodynamic purpose.
The way they’re all packed on the the friendly, spheroid New Beetle body makes for a wild contrasts of form and connotation in your head, and I think that’s the real appeal of the car.
It’s fundamentally, an insane idea — but realized so well, the insanity becomes the key to everything. The New Beetle was never intended to be a hard-core track monster. Of course not. And yet, someone did — not just someone, but an entire, massive company, and then they went on to make 250 of them. The contrast of the friendly, harmless face of the Beetle dressed in all this intense equipment manages to add an element of humor that a lot of cars of this class sorely need.
In a weird way, it almost reminds me of the insane era of the Mulholland-look Beetles. The Mulholland look started in Southern California as kind of a joke from a fiberglass-parts house and ended up being turned into an (at least semi) serious Beetle subculture. The difference here is that this Beetle actually has to go to back up all that show.
The Beetle RSi uses VW’s 3.2-liter VR6 making about 221 HP (225 bhp) at 6200 rpm and 234 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm — for this car, of this era, that’s no joke. Those horses are ridden to all four wheels via VW’s 4motion system, and there’s a six-speed ‘box.
Tests at the time said it would get from collecting dust to 62 MPH in about 6.4 seconds, and they said it had a top speed of 140. I had this on the Autobahn, and I’m pretty sure at one point, for one, brief glorious moment, I touched 230-240 KPH (140-149 MPH), so I certainly believe those numbers.
Before I talk more about how it goes, I have to tell you about the inside, because the bonkersism was equally applied in here. There’s carbon fiber panels everywhere they could be put, like door cards, instrument binnacle, and so on, and all that carbon fiber is held in place with billet aluminum trim parts. Pretty much every bit of plastic bolt-on inside was replaced with aluminum.
That also goes for the window cranks, since the RSi has some gloriously manual windows, to match its transmission. I saw one other RSi at the Beetle Sunshine Tour, and he was grinning like a loon as he rolled down his wind0w, pointing to both our cars.
“Make big bee-cep, yes?” he said, pointing to his bulging arm.
The upholstery is done in this great vivid orange leather, and the seats those orange peels are wrapping are carbon-fiber racing buckets— literal buckets, really, as they’re one-piece seats, not hinged between the base and back. They’re quite comfortable and supportive, but they only move forward and back, and if you’re short like I sure as hell am you end up plopping improbably low in the car.
To it’s credit, visibility was still good, thanks to the massive windows, but you could have sat a medium-sized dog, like a schnauzer or something, on my head with plenty of room. A cluster of gauges for oil temperature, pressure, and charge fit in where the radio would normally go, so the radio gets moved up between the also-fancy sun visors.
The radio seems to be in a pretty shallow recess in the headliner there — if you wanted to replace it with something more modern and useful, like having, say, bluetooth, I’m not sure that you’d really be able to. And actually, that reminds me of something I noticed. In my head, 2001 doesn’t really feel like all that long ago. It still sort of feels like part of our glorious modernity.
At least, until you get into a car of that era and start looking around for the USB port or something. In fact, this Beetle RSi had an even more blatant reminder of that new-century era. This thing:
I’ve seen sandwiches that would fit in that cradle more recently than I’ve seen phones that would. There are a bunch of other fun period details like these little colored LED shift lights and a total lack of cupholders.
Back in the day, one of these would have fetched about $80,000 or so — pretty serious money. So was it worth it? Honestly, I think if you had the money, sure, why not? It’s basically solidified fun, both for the people inside driving it and for those outside, seeing and hearing it.
I didn’t get to track it or anything like that, but I did get one of the next best things, a nice multi-hour Autobahn stint in it. After a while marveling at how clean and orderly and well-mannered all the drivers seemed to be, one of those funny electronic signs that shows the speed limit all of a sudden changed to show a grey square with a bunch of diagonal lines — the sign for Feel Free To Haul Ass.
So, ass I hauled. And the RSi was a more than willing partner in this hauling. Accelleration — even from, say 100 KPH to 200 KPH, was quite strong and relentless, in both 5th and, surprisingly 6th gears. I mean, 6th less so, but it still had a bit of grunt, even so. That maximum torque comes at 3200 RPM, so it still has a good bit to give even at high speeds.
Once you get up to the big speeds, the reality that you’re in a rolling dome with a bunch of wings on it becomes clear, and you can feel the wind around you getting routed to keep you on the ground. Maybe it’s the height of the car, but it felt different than other fast cars I’ve driven that way. It stays planted, and the grip through the four driven wheels always felt confident and good, but it’s not the same experience as doing 140 MPH in, say, an Aventador or something. But it’s not a bad experience, either.
By modern standards it’s not particularly fast, but it sure feels plenty fast on the road, and the sounds that narrow-angle V6 makes are quite spectacular. I didn’t record any, but this guy on YouTube did so you can have an idea:
The gearshift is a real treat: tiny, little snicking throws, very mechanical feeling, in the same satisfying way that I imagine the mechanism of an orrery or something would be. It’s a crapload of fun just driving around and snapping through the gears on this thing.
Overall, VW really brought it when they loaned me this car. The main event, the Beetle Sunshine Rally, is more focused on modern Beetles, which I, admittedly, am not. But I can’t think of a better ambassador to the first generation of reborn Beetle than this deliriously and gloriously bonkers New Beetle in an Iron Man suit.
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