2019 VW Beetle Final Edition Review | A car out of time in more ways than one
PUEBLA, Mexico — We’re approaching the end of an era once more. Volkswagen is discontinuing the Beetle. It’s strange, and a bit sad, to imagine the company without the model — again — that made it famous. This time it’s going out with a bit of pomp and circumstance in Mexico, where Volkswagen brought us to experience the hatchback’s Final Edition trim during Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
Any discussion of the last Beetle does merit a review of the cars that got us here: the original air-cooled Bug and the follow-up New Beetle. The original hardly needs introduction, transforming from strange European curiosity to economy car phenomenon through the 1960s. But toward the end of its life, it was a victim of its unchanging design. The competition became more efficient, more comfortable, faster and safer. And of course, there was less reason to buy a new model when there were oodles of previous models on the used market that weren’t that different from what was on the showroom floor.
After the classic Beetle’s departure, there was a long hiatus until VW revealed the Concept 1 in the mid-1990s, a bubbly contemporary take on the iconic design. And with massively positive feedback, the company launched a faithful production model for 1998. It rode a wave of nostalgia and arguably kickstarted the retro design craze of the 2000s that also gave us the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Plymouth Prowler, Chevy SSR, Ford Thunderbird, Mini Cooper, 2005 Ford Mustang redesign and even the revival of the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger. In this climate of rabid retro fans, the New Beetle was a huge success. But it fell victim to the same trap of its predecessor. It never changed significantly enough, leaving it stale and outdone by competitors by the end of its 12-year run in the 2010 model year.
That brings us to this generation of Beetle, which launched for the 2012 model year. It was completely redesigned with all-new underpinnings. It featured more aggressive styling, as well as fresh engines, even a punchy 200-horsepower engine like that in the GTI. The 2019 Final Edition we’re driving marks the seventh year for the hatchback, and besides discovering whether this vehicle is still good, we also seem to have discovered why it’s leaving us again.
The Final Edition Beetle’s uniqueness boils down to a flashier interior and exterior — that’s it. Inside, this car’s full up on every shiny chrome bit VW offers, coated with a candy shell of two exclusive colors: Stonewashed Blue (first seen on the Beetle Denim), and Safari Uni beige. The two colors reflect the blue and beige hues available on the 2003 VW Beetle Ultima Edition, the last of the air-cooled classic Beetles. If the nostalgia is lost on you, white, black, and silver are also available.
The Beetle SE rolls on 17-inch multi-spoke wheels, and the SEL gets 18-inch retro-style chrome disk wheel covers. Inside, both SE and SEL trims get diamond-stitched upholstery, with the SE getting cloth and leatherette, and the SEL getting real leather. That’s where the differences between the Final Edition Beetles and their normal counterparts end. Everything that’s mechanical stays the same.
The mechanical stagnation reflects Volkswagen’s decision a few years back to stop investing in the Beetle, which initially launched with a five-cylinder naturally aspirated engine and a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with at least 200 horsepower. The current model has just one powertrain option. It’s a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 174 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque coupled to a conventional torque-converter-equipped six-speed automatic. No manual, no base engine, less power than the old 2.0T — although it’s at least on par with the Golf.
Together, the powertrain is impressively quiet and smooth, emitting just occasional turbo whistles and a bit of hum at high rpm. On paper, the output looks competitive, putting it in contention with the turbo Honda Civic and 2.5-liter Mazda3, but it doesn’t feel very fast. It keeps up with traffic fine, but floor it and you’ll be wishing for more grunt. There were a number of times in hectic Mexican traffic that it felt downright slow. Since the Beetle weighs in at just over 3,000 pounds, right in line with the Mazda and Toyota, it seems the transmission is to blame, which prioritizes smooth power delivery over speed, and tends to shift casually. A manual transmission would probably help it feel quicker, but as we mentioned, that hasn’t been an option for a few years now.
As for ride and handling, it generally feels like a softer version of the sixth-generation Golf with which it shared a platform, not the current seventh-generation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The ride quality is good. It does a great job soaking up lumps and bumps, great and small. All of which we found in abundance around Puebla, Mexico, among potholes, speed bumps and bricks. Steering is nicely weighted with just enough feedback to be engaging, though it’s a somewhat slow helm. Turn-in isn’t especially fast, and the chassis lacks the stiffness of the current crop of compact cars. The problem here is that, while the Beetle’s dynamics aren’t bad, they aren’t exceptional, either. Other compact cars do the same in more practical packages, or offer zippier handling without much if any sacrifice in comfort. The obvious example is the current VW Golf.
Then we come to the interior. As we mentioned before, this Final Edition gets an extra splash of pizazz thanks to the diamond-stitched upholstery in lovely beige hues. It goes nicely with the Beetle’s trademark painted interior panels, vintage style glove box and the single round instrument binnacle for all the dials. The upholstery is the only change, though, and it’s not enough to attract someone who wasn’t already interested in a Beetle, since the car still suffers from a number of cheap plastics and severely diminished rear-seat room and cargo space.
Part of the reason the Beetle — which isn’t really that bad in isolation — is on the way out is competition inside and outside of the Volkswagen lineup. The Golf’s upright shape means it can hold much more, and it has the added advantage of two rear doors. It offers a much better dual-clutch transmission, plus a manual option for diehards. There are even wagon and all-wheel-drive variants. If you’re on a budget or generally frugal, there’s the Jetta. It’s about $ 2,000 less expensive than the Beetle, and it attains 40 mpg on the highway, while the Beetle gets just 33. And if you had to have two doors, you can find a solution outside VW with the Civic coupe. It offers up similar power and similar pricing, but with better fuel economy, a more spacious rear seat, and more modern, sophisticated driving dynamics.
The other big obstacle the Beetle has to contend with is modern buyers, and this is the real killer for the round car. Changing tastes mean the two-door body style and retro design just don’t appeal to modern buyers. Other two-doors are long gone, like the Kia Forte Koup, Ford Focus, and even the Golf two-door hatchback. Retro cars, save Mini, are also not so hot now days. Fiat has struggled with overly retro design with its 500, but it’s compensating with the 500X crossover. The Beetle is still just a budget retro coupe, which are three descriptors people aren’t racing to buy anymore.
Not only that, it’s not fresh retro. We’re not in 1998 when the country had been sans Beetles for nearly 20 years. The demand for the car has been satiated; if you wanted a modern one, you’ve probably already bought one. Now it’ll be quite a number of years before you need or want another. And with the various practicality issues we’ve mentioned, there isn’t much reason for someone just looking for a commuter car to buy it over something else.
Is it the absolute end of the road for the Beetle, though? We doubt it. There’s also the opportunity to do something fresh with the MEB electric platform, riffing off the upcoming Bus revival known as the I.D. Buzz, to make it more interesting for modern buyers. VW could make the Beetle rear-motor, rear-drive, pleasing die-hards and enthusiasts alike, and further broadening the market for the car.
That’s all speculation — there’s no guarantee the Beetle will return. In the here and now, we’re sad to see the Beetle go away for sentimental reasons. But we also know there’s no way it could continue on as-is. The competition is better, and the public wants things the Beetle can’t deliver — or something else entirely.
All of which has left the Beetle a car stuck in time, and its time has run out.