- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Automobiles are something like clothing fashions and popular music. Even if you produce a hit, the competition is so fierce that you get eaten alive unless you constantly offer fresh material and arrangements.It wasn't always that way. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a growing number of automobile buyers rejected the "planned obsolescence" that had infected the American car companies. They saw virtue in continuity, especially in styling.

That was part of the success story of the original Volkswagen Beetle, which came to these shores from Germany and sold exactly two cars here in 1949. It changed not at all or only slightly from year to year, and went on to become the most popular imported car in the country until it left in 1975. It is still sold in Mexico.

Now there's a New Beetle. Propelled by nostalgia and niche marketing, a completely new version returned in 1998. No longer powered by a horizontally-opposed air-cooled rear engine, the New Beetle has front-wheel drive and a conventional in-line four-cylinder power plant.

But because of its Beetle heritage, it has unique styling that doesn't lend itself to much modification. In its own way, it is trying to revive the old interest in continuity and tradition. The problem is a fickle buying public whose eclectic tastes are being tickled by an ever-growing array of models aimed at small numbers of buyers.

The New Beetle is no exception. Where once its predecessor was the only game in town, now it is one of dozens of cars in its price and size class. Knowing this, the Volkswagen people never figured it to become the same sort of killer as the old Bug, which sold 423,000 in 1968. Their target was about 60,000 annual sales, in a market of about 17 million cars and trucks.

It actually did better than that, with a peak of 83,434 in 1999. But last year sales were down to 65,201. What to do?

Well, how about a new New Beetle? That would be the 2002 Turbo S 1.8T model. The old New Beetle already boasted five separate versions two with standard 2-liter gasoline engines, one turbo-diesel and two 1.8-liter turbocharged gasoline models.

All are available with either five-speed manual or automatic transmissions.

The Turbo S engine is the same size 1.8 liters as the existing turbo model. But it has a whole lot more punch 180 horsepower compared to 150 horsepower. It is the most powerful four-cylinder engine ever offered by Volkswagen, and is a clone of the engine in the Audi A4 and TT models from VW's upmarket division.

The engine drives the front wheels through an easy-shifting six-speed manual transmission another first for Volkswagen and the only six-speed offered in this price class that enables the Turbo S to hit 60 miles an hour in 7.4 seconds, according to the manufacturer. That's six-tenths of a second faster than the 150-horsepower 1.8T model.

No automatic transmission is available, and VW officials said there were no plans to introduce a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) as on some Audi models because the belt-and-pulley system doesn't work with the New Beetle's sideways-mounted engine.

Seventeen-inch alloy wheels with high-performance tires help the fairly stiff suspension system keep the Turbo S solidly planted in high-speed corners. The only disconcerting thing, at first, is the amidships driving position, with a vast space between the driver and the windshield.

But that's simply part of the New Beetle design, as is the cramped back seat. However, VW still has the best manual mechanism for flipping the front seats forward to provide access to the back. The rear seatbacks fold down for extra cargo.

In addition to the wheels, the Turbo S sports an electronic stabilization program (ESP) that uses a computer to control the brakes, transmission and engine to keep the car on track in emergency maneuvers.

Other standard equipment includes leather upholstery, a motorized glass sunroof, antilock brakes, remote locking with an alarm system, fog lights, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, and an eight-speaker stereo with a cassette.

The suggested delivery price is $23,950, including the destination charge. But you must pay extra for a CD changer.

A spoiler mounted above the rear window deploys at about 45 miles an hour and folds back into the bodywork when the car slows to a stop. It announces its moves with a disconcerting "clunk."

The Turbo S is the first step in a long-range plan to keep the New Beetle new.

Other efforts will include such things as unusual color combinations, special-edition models and something the old Beetle enthusiasts anticipate with relish a convertible.


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