PHOENIX — Volkswagen AG's New Beetle has been traversing North American roads since the spring of 1998 and has been dubbed everything from “cute” to “precious.”

Some would even call it a “chick” car, maybe because 60% of Beetle buyers are female. The folks at VW, however, want to alter that image and give the Beetle a little more brawn with the new '02 Beetle Turbo S, which hit U.S. dealer showrooms in January (there's no plan to sell the Turbo S in Europe, so far).

“We think the New Beetle Turbo S will begin to attract more male buyers,” says Frank Maguire, vice president-sales and marketing for Volkswagen North America Inc., says at a preview of the new model here.

To that end, the Turbo S features a 1.8L inline 4-cyl. similar to that in the current generation Beetle Turbo but with 30 more horsepower, taking it to 180 hp. Maximum output is delivered at 5,500 rpm, 300 rpm lower than that of the current Turbo. Torque now is 173 lb.-ft. (235 Nm), a slight increase from 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) in the current version.

The engine is mated to VW's first-ever 6-speed manual transmission. The added gear helps boost fuel economy, rated at 23 mpg city (10L/100 km) and 30 mpg (8L/100 km) highway.

The Beetle Turbo S rides on McPherson struts up front, and the rear suspension utilizes a “V” profile torsion beam axle with integral sway bar and trailing arm. The torsion beam axle is mounted to the vehicle with VW's unique track-correcting bushings.

The transmission, suspension and engine combination was put to the test on several different courses at the Firebird International Raceway here, and the results were impressive. During high speed and evasive driving maneuvers, the Beetle Turbo S handled well, especially considering most of its competitors probably couldn't make it around the track without screaming “uncle.”

Along with its new-found might, Beetle Turbo S also features a new front fascia with integrated fog lamps, redesigned turn signals and an air-slicing front spoiler. The rear fascia features a redesigned rear bumper, Turbo-S badging and dual chrome exhaust tips.

The car rides on new 17-in. alloy wheels that are available exclusively on the Turbo S. There also is a speed-activated spoiler that stays hidden at the top of the rear hatch until the car reaches 45 mph.

Stainless steel pedals with grips help keep the driver's foot firmly on the throttle. Brushed alloy accents are used on the shift knob, glove box handle, steering wheel spokes and door locks. Leather seating surfaces and a power sunroof are standard, as well.

The Turbo S overall is a steal at $23,400, the base price for this pocket rocket. Only two options are available: an ashtray and a 6-disc CD changer.

With its cutesy looks belying the power under its hood, the Beetle Turbo S still may have a ways to go to attract a significant number of male buyers. But that could all change after the first few times the “chicks” storm past the guys at the traffic light.