Volkswagens: Beach and Beetle

Driving two diesels

by Julian Edgar, pics by Julian Edgar and Volkswagen

Click on pics to view larger images

In our current new car market, diesels remain a bit of an oddity. Sure there are plenty of four wheel drives and some soft-roaders available with diesel powerplants, but turning up at your relatives’ gathering in a car making rattling noises from under the bonnet is still going to raise some eyebrows.

Especially if you arrive in either of these machines!

Volkswagen in Australia has committed to making available diesel engine versions of all their models – and that includes the New Beetle and the oddly named Kombi Beach.

Kombi Beach

The big 2100kg Volkswagen is equipped with a 2.5 litre, 5 cylinder in-line turbo diesel. Developing just 96kW at 3500 rpm, you could be forgiven for assuming the Kombi is a slug to end all slugs. Especially with the quoted 0-100 km/h time of 15.3 seconds. However, as with all turbo diesels, the sting is in the torque figure, where there’s 340Nm available at 2000 – 2300 rpm.

The Volkswagen diesels don’t use common rail injection technology; instead they have unit injection, where each injector operates almost as an individual fuel system. From the user’s perspective the only difference is that occasionally a diesel Volkswagen can be seen to puff some black smoke – something that doesn’t seem to happened with other manufacturers’ common rail systems.

The AUD$54,990 Kombi Beach is available with either 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto gearboxes; the car we drove had the 6-speed manual. Controlled by a short gear lever sprouting from the dash, the ‘box uses intelligently chosen ratios. For example, first gear is very low, something necessary when at times the engine can be perceptibly slow to come on boost. Drive is to the front wheels but that’s never an issue – without being told, few drivers would be able to guess which end of the car is powered.

As with Kombis over many years, the Beach runs sophisticated all-independent suspension that gives good ride and excellent handling. Further safety is provided by optional $895 stability control, and ABS and electronic brake pressure control are used on the four discs. Two airbags are standard; side and curtain airbags are $795 options.

With the huge torque and the manual 6-speed transmission, the Kombi never feels under-powered. And the fuel economy! The combined factory figure is 8.5 litres/100km and in a drive that included lots of country road kilometres, we averaged 7.1 litres/100km. In fact, with excellent cruise control, good aerodynamic stability and comfortable front seats, the Kombi is a brilliant long distance car.

But what about when you reach your destination and prepare the interior for sleep? Then the package isn’t as good. Despite having features like a rear seat that reclines fully to form a bed that (with further areas of padding) is no less than 2.3 metres long and 1.7 metres wide, and standard features that include a folding table and front seats that swivel through 180 degrees, the interior is nothing special in design. The use of the rear bench as part of the bed means that when being used as a passenger seat it’s flat and unsupportive; rotating the front seats is an absolute pain in the butt as they constantly foul obtrusions; and the storage bags supported either side of the cabin look good but don’t work particularly well. There’s also a huge amount of painted metal in the cabin – the rear of the car reeks of cheap conversion of a commercial vehicle.

But in terms of refinement, performance and fuel economy, the diesel Kombi shows just what is possible in this size of vehicle.

New Beetle

The Beetle is available from AUD$25,990 with the 1.6 litre petrol engine – or you can pay $28,490 for the 1.9 litre turbo diesel. And isn’t the diesel a goer! Unlike many cars that are available in both diesel and petrol versions, the diesel not only boasts more torque that the base petrol car, but has more power as well.

In fact the numbers make for a very persuasive diesel case. Power is up by 3 per cent and torque increases by a massive 69 per cent! And as you’d expect, the diesel Beetle is not only faster but is far more flexible in-gear (with one caveat we’ll come to). And what do you pay at the pump for this greater performance? Far less! The factory fuel consumption figure for the 1.6 litre petrol Beetle is 7.7 litres/100 km but the diesel comes in 29 per cent better at 5.5 litres/100 km. In our drive we didn’t do quite as well as that but an average in the high Fives is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

All diesel Beetles are equipped with 5-speed manual transmissions.

So what’s the big trade-off in buying the diesel? Apart from the initial extra $2500 outlay, very little. Noise and harshness are well concealed, but like the Kombi Beach, the Beetle is a car that you can catch off-boost. It’s most noticeable when accelerating from a rolling start – for example, turning a suburban corner or accelerating through a roundabout. In those situations there can be relatively little response followed by a sudden increase in power as the turbo whizzes up. It’s a characteristic you can easily adapt to but it isn’t present in the 2-litre diesel Golf.

And the rest of the car? Since launch, the New Beetle has received a facelift but it looks much the same – for all the good and bad that involves. So it’s still an exciting retro shape, but the occupants pay for that in odd interior space proportions and flat doors that shut with an awful clang. On the road the car handles and rides well, and standard safety includes four airbags and electronic stability control.

If you’re buying a new manual trans Beetle, we’d suggest that diesel is the only choice.

Both cars were provided for this story by Volkswagen Australia.

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