Classic CARmentary: 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

This car was probably the biggest disappointment of all of the cars I drove.  In 1998, the low end of the market was full of drab, dull sedans, a few crossovers and trucks.  Even though I knew the New Beetle was nothing more than a Golf in Beetle clothing, I looked forward to its introduction as much as anyone else.  When I reserved the car from the company that handles VWs press fleet, I requested a yellow one with a manual, to pay homage to my father’s ’74 Super Beetle.  Of course, when I came home from work that Monday, there was a red one with an automatic.  At least the color was similar to their ’61 convertible.

Back in 1998, The New Beetle really stood out in an otherwise drab crowd.


I was still game, though, until I sat behind the wheel.  Like I describe below, it was not unlike sitting in one of GM’s Dustbuster vans.  I didn’t get, and couldn’t imagine anyone else getting, driving enjoyment out of one of these.  This is unless your enjoyment solely consists of being seen in something “cool.”

The below review ran on June 29, 1998.

Thanks to the New Beetle, I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame. Everywhere I went, people smiled, waved, pointed, and asked me questions. It’s extremely rare to get this kind of attention for less than $20,000.

The New Beetle packs the unmistakable ladybug shape of its ancestor into a thoroughly modern package. Based on the platform of the next-generation Golf, it’s a water-cooled, front-engine, front-wheel drive hatchback. At first glance, the interior looks stark with a lot of painted metal. Don’t be fooled – it’s actually body-colored plastic paying reminiscent the original Bug’s interior. It also includes un-Bug-like features: power windows, locks and mirrors, sound system with optional six -CD changer, four-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, and tilt-adjustable steering wheel. All of the gauges are in a single pod before the driver set against a HUGE dashboard. To get a sleeker shape, the designers stretched the windshield over the front wheels, putting its base a good yard out. Combined with the tall roof and overhead clock, it feels like driving a minivan.

You’ll be impressed by the new Beetle’s acceleration. Although not jet-like due to its nearly 2,800 pounds, the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is sufficient for everyday driving (coming soon: a turbo and possibly a six-cylinder). Thanks to 16-inch low profile tires, handling is above-average for a subcompact, but they contribute to a relatively harsh ride. Being taller than most cars on the road, there’s plenty of headroom for front and rear passengers, and all get full-size head restraints. The trunk is small, and the opening is narrow, but the rear seats fold nearly flat to expand trunk room. Safety wise, it has anti-lock brakes as well as front and side airbags. The Beetle is the safest subcompact available, achieving high scores in a recent crash test.

But people will buy the Beetle for one reason: it’s a nostalgic breath of fresh air in a world of drab, look-a-likes.

For more information contact 1-800-444-8987


Type: 2-Door Hatchback
Engine: 115-horsepower, 2.0 liter inline 4
Transmission: 4-Speed Automatic
EPA Mileage: 22 city/27 highway
Tested Price: $17,755

Initially, there was talk of slipping the VR6 under the hood, as it already had a home in the Golf.  However, VW decided that the TDI and the Turbo would be sufficient.  Later in the run, the 2.5 liter, 5-cylinder replaced the 2.Slow as the base engine.