The “Turbo S” moniker is usually reserved for very fast Porsches like the 944 Turbo S, Cayenne Turbo S, or the most impressive of the lot — the 911 Turbo S (current generation of that can do 200-plus mph). It’s the high-feature high-performance spec for serious cars. So how did a cute little Volkswagen Beetle end up with Turbo S honors?

I asked this question of a good friend as we trundled down the 710 freeway into Los Angeles the other day. We were riffing about useless garbage as usual, and he suddenly became alert and spoke with a quiet urgency I’d never seen before: “Wow. That’s a Turbo S.”

I was confused, I didn’t see a 911 anywhere. “What do you mean Turbo S?”

“It’s right there!”

His finger pointed out of the windshield to a weird-looking Volkswagen New Beetle, with a frowny sort of rear bumper. It was slowly getting away in the LA traffic. “Get close to it,” my passenger exclaimed. I floored my Volkswagen GTI to catch up to the Beetle. As I approached it, I’ll be damned but it had a real Turbo S badge on it. Not an AutoZone special, a bonafide Turbo S Porsche-looking script on the trunk. What a weird car!

GTI Performance, Adorable Looks: The Volkswagen Beetle Turbo S Was a Real Thing
The press photos for this car were kind of intense, huh? – Image: Volkswagen

My friend could tell it from a mile away because of its unique front and rear bumper treatment, along with the front alien spider eyes. When I got home, I looked into the Beetle Turbo S and found out that it was actually pretty cool. Naturally, I’m here to share my findings with you.

Underneath the skin of the New Beetle exists the VW Group A4 platform, otherwise known as PQ34. It’s the same platform that is underneath the Mk4 Golf and Jetta, and the Mk1 Audi TT. The New Beetle came with a few engine options in the U.S., namely the 2.0 naturally aspirated engine, the 2.5 inline-five, the 1.8T 20-valve turbo-four, and a 1.9 TDI engine. The Turbo S had the troublesome 1.8T.

In 2002, deep into the New Beetle’s lifespan, Volkswagen took the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine and gave it a slight re-tune, and upped boost pressure by about 3 psi to 11.6. This resulted in a power bump to 180 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque, which was a big increase from the stock figured of 150 HP and 162 lb-ft respectively. Not world-shattering output, but definitely enough to make an appreciable difference.

For context, here are a few other Turbo S horsepower claims from Porsche history via Excellence Magazine’s spec sheet archives:

  • 944 Turbo S: 250 HP (1988)
  • 911 Turbo S: 322 HP (1992)
  • Beetle Turbo S: 180 HP (2002)
  • 911 Turbo S: 444 HP (2005)
  • Cayenne Turbo S: 550 HP (2009)
  • 911 Turbo S: 530 HP (2010)

Car journalist Tony Swan’s 2002 review of the Beetle Turbo S is still up on Car and Driver’s website. He clearly noticed the power but didn’t exactly seem comprehensively impressed with the car. An excerpt:

“Tramp on the gas, and it’s instantly apparent that you’re managing considerably more muscle than in any previous U.S.-market Beetle, old or new. This isn’t entirely a good thing. The ballsier New Beetle hustles from stoplight to stoplight with more authority, for sure, but applying full throttle in a lower gear requires careful attention at the helm, because torque steer is far more of an issue here than in any previous iteration of this car.”

GTI Performance, Adorable Looks: The Volkswagen Beetle Turbo S Was a Real Thing
Image: Volkswagen

Getting an extra 30 HP out of a modest engine is more significant than you might think — after all, it was a 20 percent power bump for this Beetle! This car was also the first application of a six-speed manual transmission by the boffins at Wolfsburg, bringing a new era of transmission codes that began with “02M.” That same gearbox with slight tweaks is still in use to this day.

The suspension got some tweaks too, to bring it in line with the contemporary Mk4 Golf GTI. The Turbo S came out to basically un-bore Beetle buyers and give it a bit of zing. Now, they’re cool and rare. I’d never even seen or heard of one until a few weeks ago. Casual research through some classified ads yielded zero for sale, though funny enough it seems that Bring-a-Trailer is auctioning one off the very week of this writing.

GTI Performance, Adorable Looks: The Volkswagen Beetle Turbo S Was a Real Thing
Image: Volkswagen

The Beetle Turbo S is also in in Forza Motorsport 1, and there is no higher accolade than that.

GTI Performance, Adorable Looks: The Volkswagen Beetle Turbo S Was a Real Thing
Image: Volkswagen