A new breed of Beetlemaniacs swarmed over Volkswagen's New Beetle exhibit at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit during January to eyeball the 1998 reincarnation of the fabled Bug.

But will they buy it? Jean Jennings, deputy editor of Automobile, WAW's sister Primedia magazine, thinks they will - and in big numbers. "They'll easily sell 50,000 and maybe 70,000 (capacity)," she says.

She has an advantage over the oglers: She's on a short list of folks who've actually driven the New Beetle. "It's like driving a VW Golf with a top hat," she says. That's because underneath the New Beetle's egg-shaped retro skin is basically a front-drive Golf powered by a 115-hp, 2L 4-banger.

A direct-injection turbodiesel that gets 48 miles per gallon (4.8L/100 km) and has a range of 700 miles (1,120 km) also is available. A turbo gasoline version is coming next fall.

"I think it would've had very limited sales if it weren't as 'real' as it is," she says. "VW needed something under it (the familiar Bug shape) to make it viable. The press says it's faddish, but driving it is no joke. You can do everything in the New Beetle you can do in a Golf."

Not quite. During her time behind the wheel in Germany in December, Ms. Jennings says she experienced "a little more roll in turns" because the New Beetle is taller than Golf. Still, "in off-camber turns it hunkers down. It has an amazingly nice ride."

She's especially impressed by VW's build quality and the New Beetle's interior, although allowing it has scant rear headroom just like the original. "I especially like the feel of the low cowl. I haven't seen anything like that since the (Honda) Civics of the '80s," she says.

Would she buy a New Beetle? "Yes, because it gives me something I can't get in other cars. The shape is an icon; it gives me a styling statement. Price is very important, and the car has a lot of standard stuff on it. I don't think $15,000 to $20,000 will scare anyone off. I think kids will buy it and also people who had Beetles and still have fond memories of them," says Ms. Jennings.

Although many folks in her generation owned Beetles, "I had a '57 Chevy instead. Someone gave it to me. By the time I was old enough to drive, I had no money.

"But I had a friend who owned a Beetle. We'd drive it in a snowstorm on the freeway and it felt like the wind was pushing us backwards. It was the slowest car I'd ever driven in my life."

(Jean Jennings' full New Beetle ride-and-drive report will appear in the April edition of Automobile).