Test drive: Volkswagen Beetle 1.2TSI Sport

Beetle facelift forces us into a game of spot the difference. We liked it before, but is this encore necessary?

Volkswagen Beetle 1

The year was 2012. We were in a convention hall decked out in luxury, champagne-distributing waiters and all, at the epicentre of Kuala Lumpur. The eyes, bedazzled by the beautiful surroundings, food and people that evening, struggled somewhat to fixate on the finer details. But one thing was evident: the icon was back.

Those were the words displayed at the foreground of a grand stage, one set up with no expense spared to welcome the then new Volkswagen Beetle to Malaysia. It was quite a spectacle for a car truly deserving of the title bestowed upon it. But is the third edition of Wolfsburg’s 1940s symbol of mass mobility still exciting five years on?

Volkswagen Beetle 3

It takes an incredibly trained eye to tell the facelifted Blue Silk number from a pre-updated unit. After all, this is a car defined by an immediately recognisable silhouette – one emphasised by the Beetle’s signature, bulbous fenders that flank its wide, bug-eyed face. Little details are often drowned by such standout cues. But pull up beside a 2016 model and the difference the new bumpers make becomes surprisingly obvious, and refreshingly so.

Volkswagen has done a slick job of making the Beetle look new again with updated bumper inserts that sharpen each end of the car without hardening the bubbly persona we’ve all come to love over the decades. Well, most of us at least. There are fewer changes to identify inside (we only managed to spot new speedo graphics and an extra splash of piano black on the dash) but the incorporation of body-coloured inserts is always a fun thing. We’ve never driven a blue Beetle before so it certainly feels like we are in something brand new.

Volkswagen Beetle 5Since this is the Sport variant, the cabin is done up with Vienna leather seats, dual zone climate control and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with App Connect (Vee-dub lingo for Android Auto, Apple Carplay and MirrorLink connectivity). The driver gets more goodies in the form of paddleshifts, cruise control and bi-xenon headlamps. Heated front seats are also part of this package. While we prefer to keep our bottoms cool, all of these extras definitely justify the RM11k premium you’d have to fork out over the base Design variant which is a closer reflection of the pre-facelift model spec-wise.

Unfortunately, the word ‘Sport’ here is purely a marketing tool, so there’s no EA888 two-litre engine for our inner racer to exploit. What we get instead is a familiar 1.2-litre turbocharged engine first seen in the Polo TSI back in 2010 that’s also used in the similarly sized Vento Highline. Now is probably a good time to remind ourselves of Volkswagen’s role in getting the downsizing movement rolling. So what the engine lacks in displacement, it makes up for in low-end torque when you need that extra shove, and impressive fuel efficiency (circa 7L/100km in the real world) when you don’t.

Volkswagen Beetle 16

As before, power management duties go to a 7-speed DSG which is a recurring characteristic in Volkswagen’s current line-up. This dual clutch gearbox isn’t a fan of slow moving, stop-and-go traffic, but its quick shifting qualities really come to light once the throttle is worked. You may experience a slight intrusion of engine noise if the right foot stays planted, but it’s all in the name of good old fashioned fun which goes well with the Beetle’s vintage charms.

Volkswagen Beetle 8

Around the bends, the FWD Beetle performs with greater similarity to the Golf than the Polo, which is a good thing. This is partly due to its gravity-adding kerb weight which is identical to that of a considerably larger Honda Civic. And while its striking fenders look wider in the back, the front track actually measures 34mm more than the rear. These dimensions are as unconventional as the way the Beetle looks, but the end result is a three-door hatch that corners with a good blend of entertainment and assurance – the sole downside being its mildly taut ride, if we were to nit-pick.

Volkswagen Beetle 10

All things said, the Beetle isn’t exactly the kind of car that rolls out of the customer delivery bays on merits such as handling or fuel economy. We love the Beetle as a concept of motoring, much like how a Lamborghini Diablo is overwhelmingly desirable even if it may be a pain to live with on a daily basis. Its peppy performance, mature ride and premium kit are all bonuses stacked onto a package that can already sell itself. We haven’t even mentioned how practical it actually is. Sure, a Toyota Corolla is too. But where’s the fun in that?

Mini Cooper
Only other hatch with similar icon status but prices start at much loftier heights

Engine: 1,197cc, 4-cylinder direct-injected turbo, 104bhp, 175Nm
Price: RM147,888
Economy: 5.5L/100km
Performance: 0-100kph in 10.9 secs, 180kph
Weight: 1,316kg

Understated but effective visual updates remind us how much fun the Beetle is, not only as an industry icon, but also as a driver-oriented hatchback.

Author: Daryl Loy