Initial concept sketches for what would become the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle originated in the Volkswagen California design studio.

2007 Publications International, Ltd

1998 Volkswagen Beetle Engineering

Under its retro skin, the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle was based on another Volkswagen model, the Golf hatchback.

Given its features and a base-price range of $15,200 to $16,475, the 1998 New Beetle (the car's official name, by the way) was positioned against a variety of rivals, including the American Dodge/Plymouth Neon, the Japanese Honda Civic, and Volkswagen's own Golf-based Cabrio convertible.

Beneath the slick retro-modern styling were chassis and front-wheel-drive running gear from Volkswagen's new, fourth-generation Golf hatchback that had recently been introduced in Europe.

A single New Beetle model was offered for 1998, a two-door hatchback (in two trim levels, base and TDI) riding a 98.9-inch wheelbase. Overall length was 161.1 inches; width was 67.9. The car was 59.5 inches tall. Curb weight was 2,712 pounds. New Beetles were assembled at Volkswagen's plant in Puebla, Mexico.

Power for the 1998 New Beetle came from two available engines, a 2.0-liter overhead cam inline 4-cylinder gas engine developing 115 horsepower at 5200 rpm; and a 1.9-liter ohc inline 4-cylinder turbodiesel rated at 90 horsepower at 4000 rpm. Torque from the gas engine was 122 pounds/feet at 2600 rpm; with the turbodiesel, torque came in at 149 pounds/feet at 1900 rpm.

Performance from the gas engine was adequate -- neither weak nor stirring -- but offered laudable smoothness. Engine shake, common to 4-cylinder engines of this size, was absent. The turbodiesel wrung acceptable around-town performance from its modest 90 horses, but was noisier than the gas powerplant, and prone to vibration.

Automatic and manual transmissions were offered. The automatic was a four-speed with overdrive; it could be counted on to locate the appropriate gear and downshift promptly on hills and in passing situations. Its main drawback was hesitation.

The five-speed manual gave drivers more control, of course, with light, precise gear action. Because "short" gearing in first ran the tachometer up quickly, so many drivers with a heavy foot felt compelled to upshift very quickly into second.

EPA mileage estimates were 23/29 city/highway for the gas engine with manual transmission, 22/27 with automatic. Figures for the turbodiesel were markedly better: 41/48 city/highway with manual transmission, 34/44 with automatic.

Steering feel was light but precise. Standard four-wheel disc brakes gave the 1998 New Beetle strong and confident stopping ability. Anti-lock brakes were a $300 option.

Ride quality was well above average for cars of this size, thanks in part to 16-inch tires that absorbed road imperfections, and managed rutted pavement with sufficient aplomb so that occupants were rarely jarred or jolted. Even panic stops did not induce body roll or sway.

However, the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle's slab-sided design encouraged rocking in strong crosswinds. At speeds below 70 mph, road, wind, and engine noise were reasonably well controlled. Above 70, occupants had to raise their voices in conversation.

And on some 1998 and 1999 Volkswagen Beetles, a poorly sealed air conditioner plenum caused a dashboard whistle at speeds above 45 mph.

The 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle's shape was settled early in the design process. Clay models looked almost exactly like the eventual production version.

2007 Publications International, Ltd

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