Fun to drive – Volkswagen Beetle, Mini Cooper S and Abarth 595 Competizione

I bet you’re smiling right now and that, dear reader, sums up this test. There is no practical reason to want a Beetle, or a Mini or the Abarth – an Alto is what you’d call a people’s car today – but just looking at them sends you to a happy place. You might have had a rotten day at work or are struggling through unruly traffic, but clock one of these in your mirrors and you will smile.
We are having a far-from-rotten day at work. What we have are compact, nimble cars with feisty petrol engines so we decided to take them to a place where size (or rather the lack of it) is a virtue; where feisty engines will be kept on the boil and tyres will squeal in delight.

The new Beetle has very good front-end bite, lovely steering and goes round bends with surprising enthusiasm

Our colleagues at evo UK have three racetracks within 15 minutes of their office. We have the Indi-karting circuit, 15 minutes away from our home base in Pune, and that’s where we headed for this test. The idea though is not to set lap times; even though the Mini claims to offer ‘go-kart handling’ in Sport mode, these cars are way too big for a go-kart track. Instead we are here to ask the ‘cool-kids’ (who, we are told, are now getting back in to go-karting) to vote on what they think is the coolest car. And when there are no karts on the track we will sneak out to destroy some tyres.

The Abarth is brimming with motorsport equipment like Koni FSD dampers, cross-drilled brakes and Sabelt racing seats

The love bug
It’s the newest, yet it is the oldest. When that moustachioed whack-job asked old man Porsche to design a car to put his people on his new Autobahns, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that this would be his lasting legacy. Yet here we are, on the second generation of the ‘new’ Beetle; the third gen if you take in to account the 1938 Type 1. And the more things change the more they remain the same, with this new Beetle retaining those lovey-dovey eyes, curvy haunches and iconic egg-shaped silhouette.
So what do you get with the new ‘new Beetle’? If you recall the old ‘new Beetle’ was launched in India many moons ago and it was a landmark car for the fact that back then a hatchback costing over twenty lakh rupees was completely unheard of. There were no A-Classes, no Minis; nothing to prepare us for the sticker shock, yet 650 examples were sold till the global economy imploded.
This new one retains the fundamentals of the old new Beetle, but one thing has changed – it’s no longer feminine. The flowerpot on the dash has gone, some details have been sharpened and there’s more muscle to the bodywork. There is even a (manly?) boot spoiler and the overall effect is considerably more unisex than before. The new Beetle will continue to draw stares (and smiles), but you won’t die of embarrassment soaking in all those stares. And you will enjoy driving it.

Body-coloured bits liven up the Beetle’s cabin that has otherwise liberally raided the VW parts bin

To me that’s the big change. Its predecessor wasn’t very happy being chucked around with verve, and on a go-kart track it would have tied itself up in knots. But this new ‘new Beetle’ has very good front-end bite, lovely steering and goes round bends with surprising enthusiasm. What makes it even more surprising is that it runs on high-profile tyres, ‘energy’ tyres that prioritise fuel efficiency – and dynamically that usually means a lot of squealing and very little gripping in corners.
This new Beetle is based on the Mk VI Golf platform that also underpins the Jetta; in fact, the kits for our Indian Jetta come from the same Mexican factory that churns out the Beetle.

The Beetle sticks with 1.4TSI motor from the Jetta, uprated to 147bhp

And, as we’ve said repeatedly, the Jetta is one of the finest front-wheel-drive cars you can buy in the country. The highlight of the Beetle’s (and also the Jetta’s) dynamic repertoire is the way the car stays absolutely flat and composed even when driven very hard over lumpy, bumpy and indifferently surfaced roads; there is no float, no wallow, no pitch from the nose – just a flat composed stance and excellent body control. It’s a perfectly judged ride and handling balance – the dampers have sufficient compliance to absorb bumps and ruts without kicking the car out of shape, but are firm enough to stay planted when thrown enthusiastically round corners. Of course, the compliance means the Beetle rolls more than the other two cars on this tight go-kart track but despite that, understeer is very well contained. It even has very good steering that tells you exactly what’s going on, exactly how much grip there is, and when you’re going to whack that tyre barrier.
All this makes it excellent on the road – it is the most usable of the trio and you can use it daily without tiring of the ride or other compromises. It rides just as well as a Jetta and that is very high praise indeed. You don’t have to slow down for speed breakers, don’t have to clench your teeth when you notice that pothole too late. In fact, the only compromise it has are the two doors which make reaching out for the seat belt a bit of a stretch (the B-pillar is mounted some way back) and passengers have to contort to get into the back. Once there however, you will discover much more space than in the other two, with only the headroom being a touch tight.

The Mini has a bespoke and beautifully designed cabin

The interiors too are rather nice, with the body-coloured panels adding to its appeal. However you will notice that the Volkswagen parts bin has been liberally raided with the only real difference being the instrument binnacle and the glove box lid. If you’re familiar with VWs, the Beetle won’t feel special enough, especially when compared to the Mini’s bespoke cabin, but that said the switchgear and components are high on quality and operate with great tactility.
The motor (mounted in the nose!) is also a familiar unit, the 1.4 TSI on the Jetta – but here it has been uprated to 147bhp and that gives it a quicker 0-100kmph time of 8.3 seconds. Granted it is not shatteringly quick but for regular usage and even the occasional run down your favourite set of twisties, the motor feels well up to the task. The beauty of this motor is the bottom-end grunt, thanks to the turbo-charging, and that makes it very easy to access all those horses and deploy it with enthusiasm. Listen carefully and you will also hear the turbo whistle which does fuel the appetite of the enthusiast.
But, I have to tell you, this isn’t and doesn’t pretend to be an outrightly sporty car. There are no racing stripes. There are no low-pro tyres. The exhaust doesn’t pop and bang. The steering wheel is thin-rimmed. And the tyres have flowers on them! This is a car to transport you to a happy place. And you will find it difficult to fall in love.

Flat-bottomed steering wheel signals Abarth’s sporty intentions

Sting in the tail
Adorable, isn’t she? The Fiat 500 has always been deliciously adorable and in adding some muscle and racing stripes, the 595 Abarth – to my eye at least – looks fantastic. If cars were bought purely on how they looked, Fiat would be minting cash.
Unfortunately that is not how it works.
Anyway, some perspective. The Fiat 500 isn’t new to India. Close on the heels of the first new Beetle in 2007, Fiat launched the reincarnated 500 with the 1.3-litre diesel engine. Despite looking like a million bucks I don’t think it sold as well as the Beetle, and in any case those weren’t the best of times to be selling an expensive hatchback, so it quietly slipped out of consciousness until the Abarth brand was introduced in India.
What we have here then is an angry Cinquecento. The chin juts out angrily to make space for the intercooler, the bumpers have extra vents to cool the brakes, the wheels are large 17-inchers, twin exhausts poke out from the rear and there’s a big spoiler as well. And it is all topped off by racing stripes down the sides and scorpion badges all over. In fact, there is not one Fiat badge to be found on the 595 Abarth Competizione (to give it its proper name), even the engine gets red cam covers (like in a Ferrari!) with more scorpions on it.

Cooper S, most suited and happiest being caned on the track

Step inside and you’ll be shocked at how heavily winged and bolstered the Sabelt racing seats are. There are even holes in the seat for a four-point racing harness, which is really cool, but the seat back is almost as hard as a proper competition seat which can get tiring when you just want to head to the movies.
Just like the Beetle, the 500 also had body coloured dash panels – and it looked even better than the Beetle – but in keeping with the overtly sporty theme of the 595, everything is black. There’s a tacho pod stuck to the top of the dash and the steering wheel is a thick-rimmed flat-bottom piece with the Abarth badge. I have to be honest, the eight-year-old in me has fallen in love.
And there is substance to back all those racing details. The motor is the 1.4-litre T-jet that makes 158 turbo-charged horses and 206Nm of torque. Unlike the Beetle’s 1.4 TSI, there is noticeable turbo lag with the motor only coming alive post 2500rpm. But once you cross that, it goes like an angry little puppy. Plus the sports suspension (Copaf damper at the front, Koni’s at the rear, both dynamic damping), tiny proportions, cross-drilled brakes and fat rubber should make it a hoot on the track, aided by Torque Transfer Control that brakes a spinning inside wheel and sends more torque to the outside wheel in tight corners.
Except for one thing. The gearbox.

Automated manual transmission – a big fly in the 595 Abarth’s ointment

Granted all expensive hatchbacks in India are sold with automatic gearboxes, but if Abarth doesn’t have a proper auto for the 595 it would have been best to stick with a manual (and thus be different as well). This gearbox is an automated manual, an AMT like the Celerio, and it works just like that. Shifts aren’t smooth, there’s pronounced head-toss when it does shift and you’re waiting ages for a downshift by which time the corner exit is long gone. Sport mode is supposed to speed things up (and you get overboost pushing peak torque up to 230Nm) but the gearbox remains deeply frustrating, ruining what is an absolutely lovable car.
Out on the road things are a little better as you ask less of the gearbox but that’s when you realise the ride is too firm, the seats similarly unyielding and space for passengers nearly non-existent. You also have to be careful because the ground clearance is low. It does come alive when the roads open up and you realise it does get to 100kmph rather quickly (7.4 seconds is the claimed time which is a full second quicker than the Beetle). Plus you learn to work around the gearbox, but there are far too many compromises to the 595 to recommend it over a Beetle.

Not so mini
In their original avatars both the Beetle and 500 were iconic, ground-breaking and hugely popular cars but in a poll of most influential cars ever, it was the Mini that came second to the Ford Model T (the Bettle was fourth). Where the Beetle and 500 were rear-engined and rear-wheel-drive, the Mini set the template for all modern hatchbacks with a transversely mounted engine in the nose, driving the front wheels. It liberated nearly 80 per cent of the footprint for the passenger compartment and because it used (cheap) rubber cones for suspension, and the wheels were pushed to all four corners, it handled (almost) like a go-kart.
Even today, Mini takes that go-kart business very seriously, so much so that when you stick it in Sport mode the display tells you to brace yourself for ‘maximum go-kart feel’. Actually there’s not much seriousness to the Mini; this is a car with a phenomenal sense of humour, and is also the only one to stick (somewhat) to its original template. Where both the Beetle and 500 have ditched rear-wheel-drive, in the case of Mini, BMW ditched their own rear-wheel-drive platforms to create a new, bespoke front-wheel-drive one. And it works so well that the new UKL platform of the new Mini will soon spawn a whole new (and never before heard of) range of FWD BMWs!

Cooper S, most suited and happiest being caned on the track

How cool that we are on a go-kart track then! What you see here isn’t your regular diesel-engined Mini, this is the Cooper S complete with the John Cooper Works tuning kit and a multi-mode exhaust that clearly says for ‘track use only’. We are on a track and so we double click the remote that opens up the exhaust, kill the stability control systems, stick it in Sport mode (for maximum go-kart feel, remember?) and in a haze of (front) tyre smoke launch the Cooper S off the line. Flat through the first corner, the dynamic dampers keeping the body flat, the electronic diff lock on the front axle making sure the inside wheel doesn’t spin up and waste away torque. Brake hard for the ninety left, down a gear on the 6-speed gearbox (quick to respond, I should add), a short burst, and then the tighter part of the circuit starts. The Cooper S uses something called Performance Control that supposedly counteracts understeer before it reaches the threshold to give it a more neutral response. I don’t know if it is the electronic trickery or the inherent polish of the chassis but the Cooper S refuses to undesteer. It grips like a Rottweiler and barks like a Pit Bull Terrier. That JCW exhaust, in track mode, is ridiculously loud – popping, banging, roaring and barking – and soon we have a crowd gathered to watch the Mini lap the Indi-karting circuit. Ouseph is driving and we finally have to black flag him – he’s having so much fun. And that’s the thing about the Mini, particularly the Cooper S, it is an absolutely terrific car to drive. There is just so much feel and response from the chassis, so much engagement, so much involvement and – most importantly – so much grip, traction and poise that you become a complete hooligan. It’s also a forgiving chassis, which is a good thing because there is performance by the bucketload. The 2-litre turbo-petrol kicks out 192bhp, 300Nm with overboost and can do 0-100kmph in 6.7 seconds. Allied to its size and weight you’d need an M car to hunt it down, with a very good driver behind the wheel.

Stick the Mini in Sport mode for maximum go-kart feel

Out on the road it feels even better; you have more space to give it the beans; there are more walls, tunnels and barriers for that exhaust to ricochet off of. You’d buy the Mini because it looks great, but with the Cooper S you get a driving experience that is even more appealing than the styling. And of all the three the Mini looks the least feminine. Even the cabin is a very special place to be – not as unfinished as the Abarth, not as familiar as the Beetle. Everything is bespoke, from the bright red start/stop toggle switch to the round central instrument pod and even the door handles. It feels special, though passengers sitting at the back will have a different opinion as it is quite a squeeze in the rear. And the ride can get really stiff in Sport mode. It does get considerably better in Comfort thanks to the dynamic dampers, but you won’t want to soften it because the twin exhausts only pop and crackle in Sport mode. And, when you find yourself behind the wheel of a Cooper S, the only way to drive it is maximum attack.

Modern reincarnations
If not on nostalgia, all three trade heavily on style. After all, the very fact that they have only two doors, would discount it from any sane person’s shopping list – that and the fact that they’re thirty lakh rupee hatchbacks. That said, at thirty lakhs, nothing will stand you out from a crowd like the trio on this page. So, assuming you’re not a regular, boring person, what would you choose?
I, for one, love the 595 Abarth. It manages to be both impossibly cute and aggressively sporty; the plucky little underdog fighting it out in a world populated by big, bad corporations. But the whole experience is ruined by just one thing – the AMT gearbox. It, of course, has other compromises, but a big part of the appeal of such a car are those very compromises. The gearbox though, you’d find difficult to live with, and until such time as a regular manual makes its way into the 595 Abarth sold in India, I’ll have a hard time recommending it to you.

Cooper S is happy given those wheelspins

No such problems with the Cooper S. If sportiness is at the top of your agenda the Cooper S is the proverbial bee’s knees. The engine, gearbox, chassis, steering, even the exhaust note rewards the keen driver and puts a big, fat smile across your face. It is a brilliant (not-so) little thing, the Cooper S, and the only thing that’ll make you reconsider is its `34.65 lakh price tag.
Which leaves you with the VW Beetle, the newest entrant in this space (in India) and one that cuts the most iconic shape. Fortunately that shape no longer carries a feminine label, and under those clothes is a chassis of great polish. But what really appeals to me about the new Beetle is that you can live with it on an everyday basis. This is not a weekend indulgence. It’s not as stiff or cramped as the Mini and the 1.4TSI motor has enough power to make you smile. Maybe in Europe the verdict would be a little different but here in India, with our roads being what they are, the fact that the Jetta-derived underpinnings gives the Beetle a ride as accomplished as its handling is a big plus. At `28.73 lakh, it is also the cheapest in this test, not that it really matters for something that is a pure indulgence. What matters is how wide the smile on your face, and the Beetle manages to stretch it by that extra millimetre.

The new Beetle is not a weekend indulgence, you can live with it on everyday basis

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