ATLANTA - Cute. Cliched as that description is, it fairly well sums up Volkswagen AG's New Beetle (that's the official name, too): Plenty of style and a surprisingly equal amount of substance, despite lacking both the sound and the bargain price of the original.

Despite its cartoonish looks, the new Beetle is no toy. VW has done its homework, and it shows. From its rounded fenders and silhouette, the New Beetle makes a style statement like no other in this segment.

Sure the Beetle's profile is similar to the original, but the two are dramatically different. Not just in options, engineering and drivetrains, but in price. With a base of $15,700 in the U.S. (including destination), the new Beetle can quickly scoot to more than $19,000 fully loaded. VW expects 80% of the models will move out at closer to $17,000. And those wanting to be the first to own one could see a transaction price closer to $20,000, 20 times more than what this writer paid for his first car, a 1974 Super Beetle. "People may pay more than list," concedes VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech.

VW offers three engines, but it has been designed to accommodate all drivetrain combinations offered for the Golf - the car with which the Beetle shares its underpinnings. This could include the muscular VR6 6-cyl. and VW's Syncro all-wheel-drive, if VW desires.

The base New Beetle engine is VW's solid but dated 2L 4-cyl. When mated to a 5-speed manual, this 4-cyl.'s 115-hp engine moves the Beetle's 2,712 lbs. (1,230 kg) adequately. The two-pedal version, with electronically controlled 4-speed autobox, is slightly slower and adds $875 to the sticker. Unfortunately, no matter what powerplant is chosen, none provide the original air-cooled boxer 4-cyl. noise. All New Beetle engines are water-cooled and perform more quietly.

VW's 90-hp TDI direct-injection turbodiesel, a devilishly expensive option at $1,275, is outstanding for its ability to pass service stations (VW claims 48 mpg), but not much more. In the fall, VW will offer the Audi-made 150-hp 1.8L 5-valve turbocharged 4-cyl. VW hasn't said what the price will be for that version, but those wanting something a bit sportier may be wise to wait.

The Bug comes well equipped, including 16-in. wheels, side air bags and air conditioning - although standard A/C may be as much an admission that a vast expanse of glass heats up passengers in a hurry on a sunny day.

Driver and front-seat passenger will find more than enough leg- and headroom. Backseat space is fine for children, but most adults will have to slouch to avoid head-bumping.

For all of its styling, however, there are things Beetle buyers may find annoying. The A-pillar is nearly 10 ins. (25 cm) wide at its base - strong, no doubt, but blinding in turns. And at 12 cu.-ft. (340L), the trunk won't hold much more than a few small bags. The early versions we drove had too much wind noise at 65 mph (105 km/h).

Some touches on the car - like the dashboard's bud vase, a cleverly designed trunk lock hidden behind a chromed VW logo and the use of real aluminum on the steering wheel spokes and handbrake - are genuinely cool. There are little quirks, though, that leave one scratching one's head. As if an afterthought, VW engineers put a cheap-looking, digital-display clock in the center of the headliner. Sure it's a minor thing, but if VW designers can add a bud vase and special blue lighting for the instrument panel, why not a clock to match the car's unique looks?

Still, it is refreshing that VW decided to take a chance and build the Beetle. Unlike all of the Japanese stuff on the road today for which you need a program to tell them apart, the Beetle stands out. And that is what this car is all about. o

MAUNA LANI BAY, HI - The little Miata, celebrating its 10th anniversary in 1999, is "the soul of the company," says Richard Beattie, chief executive of Mazda North American Operations.

With 450,000 Miatas sold worldwide (half in the U.S.) and a target sales goal of 50,000 more by the end of this year, Japanese parent Mazda Motor Corp. approached the first redesign of its best-selling sports car with great trepidation.

Not to worry. The '99 MX-5 Miata, which goes on sale in North America this spring for about $20,000 to $25,000, is everything it always was - but better. Among the (cautious) changes:

n Improved handling thanks to a significantly more rigid body for the rear-drive convertible, and improved safety due to a new advanced impact distribution and absorption system.

n Lighter feel after dropping 50 lbs. (23 kg) despite a new muscular exterior styling. Handling is further enhanced by an improved 4-wheel double-wishbone suspension.

n Improved power with 140 hp - up from 133 hp. The tried-and-true DOHC 1.8L 4-cyl. engine does fine, and exhaling through a tuned exhaust gives the satisfying rumble of a thoroughbred sports car.

n Better traction due to a wider wheel track and bigger tires - 15-in. (38-cm) custom Michelin radials with alloy wheels are available.

n Some 42% more cargo space due to placement of the battery and spare tire beneath the trunk floor.

n Improved visibility from a new glass rear window with defroster.

The most visible change outside comes by exposing the redesigned oval headlights; hood and fenders are more curvaceous and door cut-lines sweep upward at the rear, providing a more sculpted look.

Mazda promises a new or completely restyled product every six months until the year 2000. "We're on the cusp of an exciting year," Mr. Beattie says. That includes the redesigned B-Series pickup trucks, the improved 626 sedan, the restyled Protege sedan to be introduced this fall, a new minivan expected to roll out next year, and a car-based sport/utility vehicle, still in the works.

While Mazda appears on a roll, the Miata, which had 17,218 total U.S. sales as of last December and a '98 sales goal of 20,000-25,000, still will feel the hot breath of competition, since a revival of the sports car segment is evidenced by a new and crowded field. Even Volkswagen AG's New Beetle (see story, above) could steal Miata sales.