“IT”S A UNIQUE shape, a circle that ‘grows’ out of the ground, flanked by two smaller circles for the wheel housings.” August Jukel, VW South Africa’s head of product engineering and management, recently spent a three-year spell in Germany where, while seconded to advanced chassis engineering, he had quite a lot to do with the new Beetle. “But that’s not the only unique thing about the car,” he continues. “Unlike most of our designs, where form follows function, this

time the function had to follow the form.”

The original show car, unveiled in Detroit as far back as 1994, made no provision for mechanicals. Public acclaim for the design virtually forced VW to proceed to the development stage, but it was only Dr Piëch’s common platform strategy that made the project feasible. A natural candidate for the underpinnings was the A4 platform, used for, among other models, the new Golf, Audi A3 and Audi TT.

The original concept had to be stretched slightly to fit the front-engine mechanicals, and there was a redesign in the bumper area to achieve real-world crash-safety. But the final product stays true to the flowing lines of the show car.

It’s a tribute to the skill of the Wolfsburg engineering team that the car works so well. Despite its distinctive modern-retro shape, and its positioning as an icon – almost a trademark for the VW name – the newcomer is no mere pastiche ofits great ancestor. It’s supremely successful in its own right as a kind of coupé version of the Golf.

All Beetles are built at VW’s Puebla plant in Mexico, with some 80 per cent of production going to the US, where the car has sold like hot-cakes ever since its launch in early 1998. European sales began later that year, but right-hand drive production was delayed until the end of 1999, which accounts for the long wait before the car’s arrival in South Africa. But availability is still governed by supply: at the time of writing (February), the waiting list stretched to May 2000. VW expects no more than 1 200 registrations this year.

SA-market versions (initially, at least), are powered by the 1 984 cm3 four-cylinder eight-valve unit as used in the two-litre Golf 4. The engine, which meets the stringent Euro 4 emissions specifications, has peak outputs of 85 kW at 5 200 r/min and 170 N.m at a leisurely 2 400. It is offered in conjunction with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox. A turbodiesel option, or even the base 1,6-litre engine launched recently in Europe, may follow.

Suspension is pure Golf, with struts and wishbones in front and the familiar torsion-crank axle at the rear. The body is steel, but bumpers and fenders are plastic. They regain their original shape after minor impacts, and are bolted on to allow easy replacement, a feature VW says has earned New Beetle a reputation for low price crash repairs.

SA-market cars have a high spec level that includes driver and front passenger airbags, side-bags for front-seat occupants, ABS, electronic stability programme (ESP), air-con, electric windows, remote central locking and a custom radio/tape. Prices are R143 290 for the five-speed manual, and R151 290 for the auto. Leather seats (R4 300) and metallic paint (R510) are the only options.

Aside from the instantly recognisable shape, one of the most striking achievements is the elegant detailing. Outside, the door-handles, the boot-handle (covered, Alfa-style, by a swivelling badge) and the five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels add a jewel-like quality. Inside, touches

like the vase on the dash, grab straps on the B-pillars, the grab-handle on the facia (wrapped in perforated leather), the metal-spoked steering wheel, the stereo system with its pair of round knobs, and the simple, round instrument cluster, all evoke the old Beetle without looking or feeling kitsch.

There is plenty of room for front-seat passengers, with a feeling of airiness resulting from the large “cab-forward” windscreen, which curves down over a long, MPV-like facia. All of which is a very far cry from the original Beetle, which, as August Jukel puts it, “had its screen so close that it felt like a pair of spectacles”. The seats (optional leather units in the test car), are supremely comfortable. Ample fore-aft adjustment, a handy height “jack-up” lever, and an adjustable steering column angle allow drivers of all shapes and sizes to get comfortable at the wheel. The arched roofline also allows plenty of headroom for front-seat occupants. Rear-seat accommodation is cramped, however, and even passengers of medium height will find their heads making contact with the top of the back window. Craniums are exposed to the sun’s rays.

In modern coupé tradition, the new Beetle is a hatchback, the rear “lid” opening to reveal a compact 168 dm3 luggage compartment, complete with flip-up shelf. Fold the rear seat forward, and this expands to 712 dm3. It’s a pretty handy volume, but no match for a Golf in size and versatility. Oddments are catered for by retro

mesh door-pockets, a fold-down front central armrest (hinders operation of the handbrake in the down position, though) incorporating another hidey-hole, and a pair of cupholders flanking another small circular oddments holder beneath the centre console.

Start the motor, and it whirrs into life a little noisily (is this a conscious effort to evoke the original?), then idles smoothly. The stretch to the gearlever (which uses a cable-shift straight out of the Golf) also somehow feels reminiscent of Herbie, but be careful of barking your knuckles on the facia when grabbing third or fifth.

Unlike the original, the pedals are hang-down units in the modern tradition. The clutch takes smoothly, the torquey motor making light work of getting the fairly heavy (1 321 kg in test trim) package on the road.

As you turn into the traffic, you have to peer around the forward-stretching A-pillars to get a clear view of the road, much as you would in an MPV. Placing the car in traffic is easy, despite the fact that you can’t see the front and rear extremities. But the poor low-level vision does make parking a problem until you’ve properly sussed things out.

Even before you’re on your way, you’re the centre of attention, as pedestrians, other motorists and their passengers crane their necks to get a better view of this dinky “little” car. The quotes are there because, although the Beetle looks small on its own, when viewed in a parking lot it’s quite a bit bigger than the Tazz, Corsa or CitiGolf. In fact, it’s just 68 mm shorter than Golf 4.

Away from the city streets, one can’t help subconsciously trying to sense the rearward weight bias for which Beetles of old were famous. Of course there’s no sign of that – in fact, on twisty blacktop, the Beetle is a revelation. You’d expect it to steer, hold the road and handle like a new Golf – and it does, only possibly even better!

Front track is fractionally narrower than that of the GTI, there are different spring rates, the front shocks are stiffer, and the test car’s standard 16-inch alloys were shod with 205/55 Conti-Sport Contacts. The formula adds up to a firm but compliant ride, very little roll in corners, and leech-like grip that throttle lifts and sudden power applications hardly manage to disturb. The standard ESP and ABS make an already benign-but-precise chassis virtually idiot-proof.

Out on the test strip, the eight-valve motor tugged the heavy body from zero to 100 km/h in 11,2 seconds, and went on to clock a two-way average top speed of 182 km/h. There’s no doubt that the chassis is able to deal with considerably more power (a VR5 version is offered overseas), but we’re sure that the two-litre four, with its low-rev torque peak, will more than satisfy most customers.

Economy is reasonable, and the test car achieved just under 10 litres/100 km in fairly enthusiastic driving. That suggests a range of around 560 km on a 55-litre tankful of unleaded. The wide tyres and all-disc brakes ensured that the vehicle stopped in three seconds and under during our 10-stop 100-to-zero emergency braking test. There was no trace of fade: in fact, times got slightly better once the friction material had warmed up.

But, good as the test statistics may be, it’s not performance figures that are creating the waiting list for this car. The secret of the Beetle’s appeal is in a figure of another kind, a cute shape that brings back happy memories to a large slice of the population.