2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI: Not Winter-Ready?

Strong points
  • Handsome styling
  • Torquey TDI engine
  • Spacious interior for front-seat passengers
Weak points
  • Low-rent trim
  • Balky DSG transmission in cold weather
  • Poor cold weather fuel mileage
Full report

Volkswagen has long been a champion of diesel technology in North America, often standing as the lone brand willing to import its turbocharged, oil-burning European passenger cars and offer them for sale in the U.S. and Canada.  It was a certainty that the recently redesigned of the Volkswagen Beetle would receive a turbodiesel mill of its own when the time was right, and that time is now: the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI has been with us for much of the past calendar year.  With three different Beetles featuring three different power plants on tap (base, TDI, and Turbo), new car shoppers are more than curious as to whether the diesel edition of the compact coupe is worth the price premium it commands.

Thrifty If Driven Correctly, But Winter Takes Its Toll

There’s no denying that the terms ‘diesel’ and ‘efficiency’ have become synonymous for Canada drivers.  The 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI looks to continue this relationship with advertised fuel economy figures of 7.2 l/100 km in the city and 4.8 l / 100 km. on the highway when ordered with its standard six-speed manual transmission.  The DSG automated manual gearbox that our test vehicle was outfitted drops the highway figure somewhat, but by any measure the Beetle’s official rating is impressive.

How does Volkswagen achieve such frugality at the fuel pump?  The answer lies in the new, 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine under the hood of the car, a unit that comes with a direct fuel injection system that past New Beetle TDI models did not.  The additional upshot of direct injection is improved power, as the 2013 Beetle generates a healthy 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque.

It’s all well and good to tout the VW Beetle’s test cycle efficiency stats, but how does the vehicle’s diesel drivetrain fare when forced to handle the -30 degree C temperatures that accompanied our week with the car during a particularly cold snap in Montreal?  The answer is ‘not that well.’  While we had little difficulty starting the Beetle TDI despite the harsh conditions (occasionally having to restart the car after an initial stall-out), fuel consumption during our all-city, short-trip driving experience with the automobile stood at a cringe-worthy 15 l/100 km/h.  This was far short of our expectations for the Beetle TDI, and not in keeping with past experience with VW’s direct injection designs.  We are tempted to blame the harsh weather for the Beetle’s thirstiness, but either way it's something that potential Canadian buyers of the car will have to keep in mind when cross-shopping.

Every-Day Handling, Disappointing DSG

From a handling perspective, there are no blemishes to report for those seeking a competent daily driver.  Power is more than adequate for commuting and cruising, with substantial low-range torque giving way to an out-of-breath feeling at higher rpms.  Torque steer can make things a bit exciting in the snow when pulling off the line, but those seeking an engaging compact vehicle will want to look elsewhere, as the TDI Comfortline is saddled with the same entry-level suspension system as the base Beetle.

The impact of cold weather reared its head in one other area during our time with the Volkswagen Beetle.  VW’s DSG transmission is intended to offer the convenience of an automatic with the performance of a manual, when desired (although our car lacked steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, it was possible to engage individual gears and shift the car ourselves using the console-mounted lever).  Automatic mode, however, proved to be full of lurching, ill-timed shifting, and hesitation at a level we have never before experienced when driving DSG-equipped cars during the warmer months.  Particularly glaring was the creep-ahead feature programmed into the transmission, which simulates a traditional automatic’s ability to slowly advance forward when one's foot is removed from the brake.  The Beetle TDI’s application of this appeasement to North American sensibilities took the form of a sudden, unintended application of the throttle that frequently caught us by surprise with its lack of smoothness.

Pretty On The Outside, But Not So Much On The Inside

The 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI wears the same new sheet metal as the gas-only versions of the coupe that debuted the year before, which means that it surpasses the niche-status of the previous generation of the car by eschewing retro cues for more of a modern feel.  This allows the current Beetle to compete against other small vehicles based on more than just nostalgia, and its more confident and almost aggressive lines are handsome and appeal to a wider range of buyers.

While the Volkswagen Beetle’s passenger compartment is an inviting place, with plenty of room for the driver and front passenger to slide into the cabin via its long doors, there exists a disconnect between the car’s outer styling and the de-contented presentation of its interior.  Our TDI tester had the most basic of radios, gauges, and switchgear, and we were in fact unable to determine how to link up any mobile device via the dated LCD display that came with its CD player.  Worse still was the lack of adornment on the door panels, dashboard, and steering wheel.  The spokes of the wheel were finished in a cheap-looking plastic dyed the same red as the exterior paint, and a similar plastic piece extended along the top of each of the door panels all the way into the automobile’s rear quarters.  The back seat offered reasonable accommodations for full-size adults, but the sloping rear roofline intruded into headroom for taller passengers.

Winter Is A Harsh Mistress

Almost any automobile is going to perform worse from an efficiency standpoint when facing chilling temperatures and slippery, snow-covered roads.  Given the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI Comfortline's price point, however, those interested in purchasing this intriguing little coupe must be cognizant that the fuel savings that they are paying for up-front might not be recovered in a reasonable amount of time should winter driving be a regular feature of their year-round commuting schedule.  This is especially true given that the TDI doesn’t bring with it any other substantial upgrades in terms of equipment versus those that come with the similarly-priced 2.5-liter Highline trim – you really are shelling out more for just the allegedly thrifty engine.  In any case, if you do choose a Beetle TDI as your next daily ride, we strongly urge you to sick with the standard manual tranny and avoid paying an additional sum for the balky optional DSG gearbox.

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