Reviews and Road Tests
First Drive - The New Beetle Turbo S
By by: Jamie Vondruska
December 17, 2001, 05:12

Scottsdale, Arizona - Volkswagen has introduced the most powerful and sportiest New Beetle to date, the New Beetle Turbo S. The specification sheet is impressive - 180hp 1.8l Turbocharged engine, all-new six-speed transmission, electronic stability program (ESP), 17" wheels, new aggressive body styling, new sport seats and more. What's on the minds of most of us though is whether this latest variation on the New Beetle theme has the bits and pieces that finally make it really different. After our first drive, we can definitely say yes, but...

This latest version (yet another) of the New Beetle is a lot more than just a tarted up marketing special. For starters, it is the first Volkswagen passenger car in North America to offer a six-speed manual transmission standard. This all-new transmission is part of the new 'M' family VWAG transmissions (say goodbye to the old 'O2A and O2J' series transmissions). Volkswagen has finally made it a bit clearer exactly how these new 'M' transmissions are rated as they are designated by the amount of torque they are designed to handle. The New Beetle Turbo S utilizes the M350 unit which is rated for 350 newton meters or 258 lbs./ft of torque. This is a wider margin than the older 'O2' series transmission and gives enthusiasts wanting to tweak the performance of their cars a better idea how far this transmission can safely be pushed. The M350 six-speed manual will also be found in the forthcoming 201hp 24v VR6 Jetta GLI and GTI models scheduled to be introduced some time late 1st quarter of next year.

The Turbo S is also the first Volkswagen passenger car to offer Electronic Stability Program ( ESP ) as standard equipment. ESP utilizes a number of electronic sensors that measure yaw rates, steering wheel angle, wheel slippage and more to determine if the car is in danger of going out of control (like in the case of a spin). The system then utilizes traction control, the engine ECU and brakes to try and correct for the given problem. Part of our drive time in the Turbo S included some track time at Firebird International Raceway outside of Phoenix and ESP made a very noticeable difference at the limits when pushing the car very hard. It was surprisingly not overly intrusive and unless you switched it off, you wouldn't readily notice how much it was interacting with your inputs. ESP can only do so much to try and correct a bad situation though and isn't completely fail safe - once physics take over ESP can't help you. Volkswagen has included a switch on the dash to defeat the system for those that autocross or do driving events on the track.

The New Beetle Turbo S has a number of exterior and interior changes to let people know this is a slightly different Beetle as well. Outside Volkswagen has created a new version of the German Votex body kit with an all-new front bumper replacement that is reminiscent of New Beetle Cup racecars, new turn signals located inboard of the headlamps, integrated front foglamps, newly designed rear bumper fascia with exposed dual chrome tipped exhaust and special Turbo S badging on the rear hatch. Also exclusive to this model is the new 'Delta X' 17" alloy wheel with 225/45HR-17 tires. Opinions of the new wheel design at the press launch were either love it or hate it with overall more people liking it. The automatic roof spoiler common to turbo New Beetle models now deploys at speeds higher than 45mph (as opposed to the original 95mph) and lowers when the vehicle goes below 10mph. Overall the car really looks great going down the road with great little details that stand out more than you would think.

On the interior, Volkswagen has also made a number of changes that look great. First are the newly redesigned 'sport' seats that are a running change not only on this car, but on the GTI and forthcoming Jetta GLI in the future. This seat has great thigh and side bolster support and really hugs the driver in place even covered in leather - a HUGE improvement over the extremely flat stock New Beetle seats. The Turbo S model sport seats are black leather with unique silver/grey leather inserts and silver/grey stitching. This same silver stitching is also found on the black leather shift boot that is topped off with a great looking brushed aluminum trimmed shift knob. Other brushed aluminum accents include the door pull handles, door lock sticks, glove box handle, three spokes of the steering wheel and around the top of the flower vase. To finish it off, brushed stainless steel pedals with rubber inserts from the Audi TT tie everything together and make for a very sporty look in the interior.

Standard on the New Beetle Turbo S is an 8-speaker Monsoon sound system that sounds great and can be coupled together with an optional six-disc CD-changer mounted in the trunk. One change that we were not fond of was a switch of the night-time lighting from Volkswagen's trademark blue backlight with red highlights to white backlight with red highlights. The Monsoon system also displays with white backlight and black/grey display. Not only did this not seem very unique compared to other cars out there (nor well done like it is in the newer Audi products), the radio was difficult to read properly with the white backlighting.

New Beetle enthusiasts will be happy to know that the 180hp version of the 20v 1.8l Turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (1.8T in VW speak) is finally available in the Turbo S. This engine makes 180hp at 5500 rpm (300 rpm lower than the 150hp 1.8T) and 173 lbs./ft of torque, increased from 162 lbs./ft in the 150hp version. Peak torque is reached at a low 1950 rpm through 5000 rpm - a nice long and flat curve that provides plenty of pulling power even at low rpms. Volkswagen claims a less restrictive exhaust and ECU tuning (read boost increase) are responsible for the 20% increase in power.

Suspension changes were minimal on the Turbo S. The front suspension uses a MacPherson strut design with control arms, stabilizer bars and coil spring struts. The rear suspensions employs Volkswagen's typical torsion beam axle with integral sway bar and trailing arms. Volkswagen said minor changes were made to the shocks and springs mostly to accommodate the standard 17" wheels and tires and the added impact they will add to the suspension components.

The Turbo S started life as a GLX trim level New Beetle and is extrememly well equipped: ESP, leather sport seats, automatic spoiler, integrated front fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, alloy interior touches, air conditioning, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, power one-touch windows with pinch protection, electronic cruise control, power glass sunroof, heated windshield washers, folding front center armrest, eight-speaker Monsoon sound system, anti-theft alarm system, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, two power outlets from and rear, clear lens halogen projector headlamps and central locking system with remote.

All this sounds good you say, but what is the car like to drive? Fun, but not tremendously exciting. While it is certainly no slouch, we wouldn't call it fast. Volkswagen claims a 0-60 mph time of 7.4 seconds which leaves us to believe this car is one of those that is deceivingly quick. It is a porker at over 3000lbs and that conspires to hurt performance all around. On the plus side, the six-speed transmission is wonderful with vastly improved shift feel over the older VW transmissions. This is also a true six-speed with nicely spaced ratios as opposed to a five-speed with an overdrive added to it, so it actually helps keep the car in the power throughout the gears. On the highway, the added sixth gear helped reduce RPMs to just under 2800 rpm at 80mph (as opposed to 3500 rpm on current 5-speed cars). Compared to the 25th Anniversary GTI we drove recently which is also equipped with a 180hp 1.8T and six-speed transmission, the Turbo S didn't seem nearly as quick. The 25th Anniversary GTI is also about 350lbs lighter so it does have that going for it.

On the handling side the Turbo S exhibits typical understeer (front push) characteristics at the limit. With ESP switched off, we were able to coax the tail out slightly with abrupt throttle lift-off in fast turns or silly sudden brake maneuvers in high-speed sweepers on the track (not something you want to try on the street). The ride was very nice on the street and body roll seemed to be better controlled than the last New Beetle we drove. Turn-in was crisper with the lower profile 45-series rubber, but again nothing to really get you excited. Overall a good compromise of ride and handling for most of the people that will be interested in this car. Brakes were more than up to the task for street use with good pedal feel and good modulation. Speaking of brakes, the organic brake compound used in the brake pads on this car caught fire during extremely heavy use on the track - quite a sight to see in person and something that will be sure to impress the neighbors.

While the Turbo S didn't get our juices flowing as much as we hoped, it is still the best regular New Beetle model offered so far. The exterior and interior changes look really great and are well thought out. The power, while not lightening quick, is adequate for this car and the new six-speed is a joy to use. For the type of people that will be interested in this New Beetle model, it was probably smart of Volkswagen to put an emphasis on sport-luxury rather than hardcore-sport. As a sport tourer, the New Beetle Turbo S fits the bill very nicely.

Volkswagen will produce 5000 units of the Turbo S model for 2002 in Red, Silver, Black and Platinum Grey and available in dealers during the first quarter of 2002. MSRP of the New Beetle Turbo S model is $23,400.

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