As such, when Volkswagen (VW) unveiled the New Beetle in 1998, certain members of the automotive press were less than charitable. One remarked that the car looked like something "drawn by Fisher-Price." Five years later, when VW released a convertible version, another noted that the hardtop version "hardly draws a glance anymore." The sniping continued in 2011 when VW reshaped the Beetle's exoskeleton and upgraded its engines. The car looked "deflated", its performance "unexciting" and "unsporty".
Detractors aside, the '11 redesign has resonated with the people who matter most: consumers. Sales of the Beetle were up 48% in 2013 over the previous year, making it VW's third-best seller in the US after the Jetta and Passat sedans. Still, when you're shooting to sell 10m cars annually by 2018, as Volkswagen is, you can never sell too many bugs.
To that end, VW conceived the Beetle R-Line.
Unlike the Golf R and Scirocco R sport models, which have significantly more horsepower than their next-of-kin, the Beetle R-Line is more an exercise in aesthetics. Powered by a turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine, it is essentially a 2013 Beetle Turbo, albeit with 10 more horsepower (210, up from 200), some "R-Line" badges and door sill kickplates, and re-styled front and rear bumpers. The test car's Sunroof, Sound and Navigation package also bundled visual cues unique to the R-Line, such as 19in aluminium wheels, leather seating surfaces and a dash clad in a simulacrum of brushed matte gray aluminium. If the Beetle's cosmetic makeover strikes a shopper as somewhat disingenuous, consider that, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, in 2012 US consumers alone spent $12.52bn on styling and appearance accessories that did not do one whit for bottom-line performance. Translation: sportiness is as much a state of mind as it is a state of engine tune.
Still, 210 horsepower (and 207 pound-feet of torque) is nothing to sniff at. From a stop, the R-Line's flat-out acceleration feels simultaneously crazed and rather fun, thanks to a not excessively overzealous Anti-Slip Regulation system that allows the front wheels to grate a bit of rubber along the roadway. Cruising around town, the suspension feels quite plush, more so than the car's planted stance might suggest, but when pressed through a protracted series of curves on State Route 1 north of San Francisco, it firmed up nicely. The harder the R-Line is pushed, the better it feels – but the inverse is true as well.
Accelerating gently in the “Drive” rather than “Sport” setting of the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the R-Line bats the revs down to 1,500rpm. This rev suppression is good for fuel economy, but the low vibrating drone the engine generates between 1,500 and 2,000rpm is anything but sporty. Proper steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are a very nice touch, but would feel more at home on a wheel with a little more weight and a tighter ratio. Likewise, the brake pedal would benefit from some more firmness.
With proven winners like the GTI (and outside the US, the Scirocco R) in VW showrooms, it is an open question whether even Beetle loyalists would part with $32,000 for a loaded R-Line. But there's no question that with just a few acoustic and tactile tweaks, VW's brawniest of Beetles could hold its antennae higher.