A Beetle in the driveway still brings out my inner 17-year-old and has me channeling Bill Hefner’s ice-blue VW Bug. In 1967, when we were in high school, he let me drive it. Compared to our family cars (a red Oldsmobile Rocket 88 station wagon with an automatic and a green-and-white Rambler American with three-on-the-tree), it zigzagged like a water beetle and could be driven flat out without dire consequences. It showed me that driving can be fun, a pastime, an end in itself. The trip could be a trip, as we said back then.
Along with sell like crazy, that’s probably what this 2.0-liter turbocharged R-Line specialty Beetle is meant to do—get the motor oil flowing again in people who’ve been cooped up too long in family cars. If I hadn’t aged out of its target market long ago, I’d love this beastie; but I have, and I don’t.
It isn’t the numbers: four cylinders, 16 valves, 210 horsepower and 207 torques, six speeds ahead (in a manual or an automated, dual-clutch DSG gearbox), four seats, near 30 MPG and a starting price of around 25 grand are all fine. And the car weighs more than I’d hoped—3,300 pounds—but less than I’d feared, so its performance is decent. (Any modern Beetle, including the diesel, could inhale that ‘67 Bug on any road.)
Nor is it the R-Line features, which include a driver’s sport seat that could have been molded directly from my carcass; a leather-wrapped, square-bottomed steering wheel with cruise and stereo controls built in; a pod atop the dashboard with boost-pressure and oil-temperature gauges plus a lap timer/stopwatch (as if); a handsome black-and-carbon-fiber/brushed aluminum interior; and the current-gen lowered, widened body with “aero” styling and cool, turbine-vane 18-inch wheels. Along with the DSG transmission, our test car also had the Sunroof & Sound trim, which brings keyless ignition and lock/unlock, a half-acre of tilt-and-slide sunroof, and an upgraded digital audio system with enough speakers for eight old Bugs. All of this has been designed, manufactured and then assembled with Germanic attention to detail.
No, my “issues” with this car begin when I go to get in. The door latch sticks for just a moment, to let the frameless front windows withdraw from their gaskets. Then, as I slide into the seat, I bang my right knee on the bottom of the steering column. Start ‘er up—nice throaty whirr there—and pull the shift lever to D or S, and the launch is just a tad abrupt. As are all the in-town gear changes that follow.
Yes, I can drop the seat or raise the wheel, but then the driving position isn’t quite right for me. And no, there’s nothing wrong with the shifting. DSG transmissions change gears much faster than a human foot and hand can do it, but there’s no easing these clutches in or out. The shifts are quick and efficient, but not always comfortable. An old-fashioned manual gearbox, with a clutch operated by an educated foot, would be smoother.
Now factor in a bit of turbo lag and brakes that hesitate before biting hard, and we have a car with more than a few important details that don’t add up properly.
Shut up, old man, I can hear you grumbling; the R-Line Beetle is a sporting car, not a time machine for geriatric flower children. If you want creamy smooth, get a Lexus.
Listen, grasshopper, smooth is the key to fast, as the Wee Scot has been telling us for decades. Furthermore, fooling around with the R-Line Beetle on a tight back road exposes the classic flaws of an overpowered front-wheel-drive chassis: tire squeal, torque steer, understeer.
None of this would have bothered me 20 years ago, when I believed that sportiness came with edges, that speed had to be bought with annoyances. Today, however, my pick of the new VW Beetles remains the “grown-up” TDI diesel, especially the loaded convertible. For a genuinely sporting Vee-Dub, or just one to drive every day, I’d bypass the R-Line Beetle—really a Golf in a clown suit—and go to a Golf that’s fast for real, the hot-hatch 2015 GTI.
2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line 2.0T
Base Price: $24,995
Price as Tested: $29,815
Sunroof and Sound trim: $3,720
6-Speed DSG Automatic Transmission: $1,100
- German (Mexican, actually) fit & finish, inside and out
- Sport seats
- Telepathic steering
- Knee-bumping steering column
- Notchy DSG transmission
- Overpowered FWD