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Monday, September 05, 2005

The Good Thing: an Update 

Life with The Good Thing, our inappropriately-named 1998 VW New Beetle, has been pretty good all told. I thought I'd discuss the good and the bad of Beetledom.

The Good
The car itself is great. Perhaps I'm just out of touch with the market these days, but this not-very-large four-seater whispers near-luxury in its every feature. Super-adjustable seats, a really decent climate control system, merciless air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, remote entry, and all the mod cons, at least as of 1998. There's no option I wish this car had. The seats are adjusted manually, but they go up, down, back, forth, and the seatback tilts, and the manual controls are just fine. This car has airbags inside the front seats, just in case you get hit from the side.

The interior finish is really nice.

Driving-wise, the car is a lot of fun. For a car this size, the 16" wheels are big, and it goes around corners surefootedly. The 115 horsepower engine and 4-speed auto are an overachieving drivetrain: I wouldn't mind more power, but I never find myself needing more power. I still would prefer a manual transmission, but short of the soon-to-be-widespread automatically-shifted manual transmissions, this is about as good as I expect shiftless driving to get.

Even for me, walking up to this car in a parking lot is a treat. My family motto could nearly be "no boring cars," and a VW New Beetle is basically the least boring Jetta ever. That's a good thing! It looks funny, and that's wonderful. The shape has also proved more practical than I thought: it's a near thing, but with the rear seats folded down the car will swallow a bicycle. Pretty tidy.

The Bad
Blind spots: this is the big big problem with this car. The mirrors are a bit higher than on most cars (apparently for a combination of aesthetic and convenient-mounting reasons), and the A-pillars are chunky, which gives the car a huge blind spot to the driver's left, in a perfect location to block out pedestrian-sized objects in crosswalks as you turn left. Also, if you are taller than 5'6" and sit in the back seat, you will hit your head.

Other than that, the annoyances are minor. The vents are of a fragile design, and for no good reason: the Tercel had a vent system that was sturdy, easier to adjust, and more intuitive. The Good Thing's vents are fussy to adjust, it's not obvious whether a vent is open or closed, and we saw more than one car with broken vent vanes in our search, probably due to the design. The car has a "no user-serviceable parts" attitude and tight engine-bay packaging, a simple triumph of style over function. Also, I keep wondering whether all those sad-looking half-circles in the Consumer Reports reliability ratings for Volkswagens will eventually bite me back.

I'd buy it again. My preferred version of this car would be a Jetta wagon, or better yet a Passat wagon, or better yet maybe this car. But if I had to get my own car, cost no object, I'd probably start with something ludicrous like a Buick Roadmaster wagon and make it a bit faster, or get a Subaru WRX wagon and upgrade it to STi+ performance levels, or just go for something outrageous and slow...maybe a really swanky bookmobile.

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