VW Beetle GSR (2014) review

By Ollie Kew 17 January 2014

By Ollie Kew

17 January 2014

VW has quietly turned the New Beetle into an unlikely hot hatch-baiter. As of May 2013, power from the flagship Turbo car’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine has been eked from 197bhp to 207bhp. That’s more poke than an RS Clio or Ford Fiesta ST, and just 10 horses shy of the Mk7 Golf GTI.

To celebrate, 100 of these wasp-striped Beetle GSRs will be coming to the UK, costing £23,100 – £1205 more than the mechanically identical Beetle Turbo.

What’s special about the VW Beetle GSR?

GSR stands for ‘Gelb Schwarz Rennen’ – German for yellow black racer. It’s not the first time the Beetle’s been given the treatment; the Beetle 1303 S came along in 1973, complete with the requisite yellow paint job, black bonnet and engine cover; just 3500 units were built.

The rare classic version inspires this 21st Century remake  – you get a black bootlid and ducktail spoiler, slightly suspect bonnet stripes and side decals, plus yellow stitching inside to differentiate your limited edition. Like the original, just 3500 new GSRs will be sold worldwide, and if you want one in Britain, best get your skates on, as VW UK only has 100 of them.

If you’re not a fan of the outlandish stickers (a muter grey version is also available) then bear in mind this is essentially a Beetle Turbo with an uglier front bumper and an ‘R-design’ steering wheel. The cheaper Beetle Turbo looks smarter, rolls on identical 19in wheels, and packs the same performance punch.

And just how powerful is that punch?

By far the best bit about the Beetle GSR is its fantastic engine. The 2.0-litre petrol four-pot develops 207bhp with 206lb ft from 1700rpm right through until 5200rpm. It’s no slouch – get through the lag and 62mph is there for the taking in 7.3sec. It’s a fast bumblebee-lookalike Bug too – it’ll top out at 142mph.

One dab of the floor-hinged alloy throttle pedal and there’s a more tuneful note to the Beetle’s turbocharged engine, more so than the Golf GTI. Under load, with the dash-top boost gauge’s needle waggling towards 1.5bar, it sounds dangerously close to the five-pot warble of an Audi Quattro, or its modern successor, the TTRS.

No try-hard exhaust pipe rasp here either – this is true induction noise, which reverberates through the cabin when you’re in the mood, and shuts up and behaves when you’re not. It attacks the Beetle’s girly reputation with gusto – but don’t go thinking this is a Golf GTI-baiting hot hatch.

Why not?

Because a Golf GTI, and other excellent hot hatches like Ford’s ST models, don’t just dump a socking engine into an ordinary chassis. They also exhibit bespoke control weights, and more immediate handling, to give the driver the confidence to exploit the turbocharged ponies up front. The Beetle Turbo, and this GSR variant, simply don’t.

Make no mistake – the Beetle Turbo is (ride apart) a fine car to tool about in. The gearchange has a light, well-oiled manual action, matched with slick steering that’s poured out via a sumptuously upholstered flat-bottom wheel. But these simply feel like normal car controls, rather than a performance car’s.

Where a Mini Cooper S drives as if every element has been tuned to conjure a smile (and inspire assurance), the Beetle’s merely adequate brakes, steering feedback and gearchange are left panting in the wake of the bombastic engine. It’s a blunt instrument, in the vein of the equally quick, similarly unpolished Kia Proceed GT.

Pack a cushion, by the way. The ride is extremely busy. Audi S-line busy, in fact. The car’s structure is stiff enough to cope (despite the gaping chasm of a boot aperture accessed by the enormous rear hatch), but the impressively flat cornering characteristics aren’t a fair trade for the GSR’s unsettled, fidgety behaviour.

So I’ll drive it calmly. What else?

The parts-bin VW cabin is faultlessly appointed, and being the top-spec model, enjoys standard kit like touchscreen sat-nav, Bluetooth, heated seats, parking sensors and automatic climate control. The Turbo/GSR is improved with oil temperate, stopwatch and boost gauges front-and-centre, but unlike a Ford Focus ST’s ancillary readouts, they aren’t angled towards the driver.

There’s a slab of glossy black fascia that riffs off the original Beetle inside, but frankly once you’re perched behind the high-shouldered beltline, tall scuttle and frameless doors, it’s easy to forget you’re in such a shamelessly retro vehicle. That’s not something we’d level at the other ‘past glory’ cars out there: the Mini Cooper S, or Fiat 500 Abarth, which wear their interior fancy dress with pride.

One similarity among all three – they’re essentially 2+2 seaters. The Beetle’s bubble-top roof and sharply angled hatch result in unacceptably claustrophobic rear quarters, despite the current Beetle’s sizeable footprint. Want decent rear headroom? Honestly, you’re better catered for in a VW Up. If only Volkswagen would chuck the engine in the back! Now there’s an idea…

One more thing – VW’s claimed economy figure for the Beetle GSR is a pessimistic-looking 38.7mpg – almost 10mpg inferior to a Golf GTI’s theoretical best. Our GSR test car (number 133, if you’re wondering) averaged 31.5mpg, and we’d fancy our chances of closing in on the official figures if the mood took us.


We’re really reviewing two cars in one here. You’ve really got to like the looks of the GSR, and its ultra-retro theme, to shell out more than £1000 extra for its rarity credentials. A typical limited edition, in other words.

Meanwhile, the revised Beetle Turbo is a good car hamstrung by the abilities of its famous GTI-badged stablemate – and a machine we suspect has been reined in from true hot hatch potential. That leaves the Beetle Turbo stranded in a £23k no-man’s land, between full-on pastiche charm and sheer dynamic brilliance. It’s a bug’s life.


How much? £23,100
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1984cc 16v in-line four-cyl, turbocharged, 207bhp @ 5300rpm, 207lb ft @ 1700-5200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 7.3sec 0-62mph, 142mph, 38.7mpg, 169g/km CO2
How heavy / made of? 1417kg/steel
How big (length/width/height in mm)? 4278/1808/1426


Handling 3 out of 5
Performance 4 out of 5
Usability 2 out of 5
Feelgood factor 4 out of 5
CAR's Rating 3 out of 5


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