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Back in 1998, you had to line up at the dealership to order a New Beetle. They're still cute, and have become common for good reasons.

2000 Volkswagen New Beetle Road Test
Curiously OK

By Bill Roebuck

At its introduction as a 1998 model, Volkswagen's New Beetle was a curiosity. At every turn, on every road, strangers would stare at you and smile. Some would wave or give you the "okay" sign. Others -- mainly teenagers -- would hoot, yell or applaud as you drove by. Stop in any parking lot and you'd draw a crowd. People would come up to you and ask questions about the car. As a way to meet people, it sure beat walking the dog!

All this from a simple car? Yes, from this car. The 1998 New Beetle was an automotive phenomenon. It's partly because it was so new -- back then, potential purchasers faced a six-month waiting list. There's its history -- thousands of us owned one in the sixties and seventies. Everyone wanted a look at the Beetle Reincarnate. But the real reason for the attention is this: It's simply cute. Very cute!

Today, as then, what you see is what you get: a sleek, monocoloured, apparently bumperless body that bears a certain resemblance to the Old Beetle. It sits on a VW Golf platform, so the proven underpinnings provide no surprises. That the New Beetle shares bits and pieces with the upscale Audi line is a surprise, but that's a benefit of globalization in the automotive world.

Once you're inside, there's almost no similarity to the Old Beetle. The windshield, for starters, is so far forward it's out of reach. In the unlikely event you'd have to scrape winter frost off the inside of the windshield -- a common activity in the Old Beetle -- you'd have difficulty reaching it. Even the mirrors are far away -- the rear view mirror takes a long stretch to adjust.
Once you acknowledge how far back in the car you're seated, you can begin to appreciate the features. All the dials and buttons are easy to reach, read and adjust. Nighttime lighting is a pleasant indigo blue. The instrument panel is simple and clearly provides all the information you need. No controls are hidden by the steering wheel, which both tilts and telescopes. A ratcheting lever at the sides of the front seats makes adjustments for height and position easy. Both front and side air bags are standard. The cuteness even extends to the inside -- there's a small flower vase mounted on the dashboard where you can place a fresh flower every day. You might even choose a red rose if you grew up in the era of the late Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.

It's surprisingly roomy inside There's enough front seat head room for Coneheads. But at 5 ft, 11 in., there was barely a finger's width of space in the rear seat between my head and the rear window frame -- not enough clearance for bumpy roads. The rear is fine for small adults and children. Although there are only two seatbelts in the rear, there's actually room for three small children; a third belt would have been an asset, especially to restrain a child seat.

During the week we had the test car, my family settled into it really well. We used it for almost everything that week, from trips to Lansing for yard supplies (the rear seats fold down almost flat to accommodate long items), drives along Highway 401 around Toronto (where it had no trouble keeping up with the somewhat excessive speeds of hurried drivers), to a weekend getaway up and down the hills and dales of the Hockley Valley north of the city.

The New Beetle's front-mounted 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine pumps out a torquey 115 hp. The car is no speedster, but its acceleration is adequate for safely merging into traffic from onramps, or for highway passing. And unlike its predecessor, the New Beetle is quiet, stable on the road -- even in crosswinds -- and comfortable to drive for long periods of time. Front-wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension and 16-in wheels account in part for the smooth ride. Antilock braking (ABS) is optional.

At introduction, the base model was just under $20,000, and a nicely loaded version was $23,500 -- not bad for the quality workmanship, comfort, ergonomics and its bottom-line cuteness.

© Copyright Bill Roebuck, 2002.

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