The ultra-rare über-Beetle was twice as expensive as a Porsche Boxster when new.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Here is the rarest and most expensive Volkswagen ever built. It’s a bizarre, wide-bodied, and whale-tailed machine, packed with carbon fiber, aluminum, all-wheel-drive, and the first narrow-angle 3.2-liter V-6 (VR6) available in a production VW. Presenting something you forgot about, or perhaps never knew existed: the New Beetle RSi.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Sitting inside the New Beetle, we open the door to step out and snap a few photos, and clouds of mosquitoes come for blood. Maybe two minutes and at least ten bites later, we scurry back inside the car. As we start off, there’s a deep satisfaction in watching insect vampires spattering against the windshield.

“Kills bugs fast” was a famous print ad that starred an Arena Red air-cooled Porsche 911 Turbo. Here in Langley, BC, the RSi’s V-6 is on the boil and doing just as good a job as any Stuttgart-built flyswatter.

Next to me in the passenger seat, owner Marcel Horn claps his big paws together, racking up the skeeter body count by squashing a few that have snuck into the cabin. Well over six feet tall, Horn is spoiled for headroom with the Beetle’s lofty curved roof, and he gushes over the details scattered throughout his RSi’s cabin. He recently imported the car from Tokyo, and there’s some interior wear, but while the blemishes will eventually be addressed, Horn’s summer plans are to just drive the wheels off this thing.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver
volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Doing so makes absolute sense because the RSi is an absolute delight. On paper, the power-to-weight ratio can’t match VW’s modern R-badged cars, but this juiced-up Beetle has so much character.

Under the hood, the VR6 punches out 221 horsepower at 6200 rpm and makes a terrific noise approaching redline. The combination of a short-throw, close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox and 236 pound-feet of torque at 2000 rpm makes carrying speed along these empty country lanes easy. Steering is a quick and accurate delight, and the engine responds eagerly to throttle input. It’s ein wunderbar käfer.

And then there’s the hilarity of diving into a corner and feeling the huge lateral grip of 235-series tires in a widebody version of a car that was sold to the masses with a flower vase perched on the dashboard. When it launched in 2001, the RSi cost the equivalent of $80,000—enough to buy two Porsche Boxsters at the time. Only 250 were sold, production figures ordinarily suiting a racing homologation special.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver
volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Shown as a concept at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in 1999, the RSi injected some sporting intent into the New Beetle’s image. The New Beetle was selling well already—VW shifted more than 84,000 New Beetles in the U.S. in 1999—and a turbocharged model was on the way. Today, many Volkswagen traditionalists view the New Beetle with mild disdain, but it was cute, practical, and no more difficult to live with than a contemporary Golf.

These attributes were no surprise because, underneath, the New Beetle was a Golf. Stretching a Beetle-shaped frock over a Golf-sized mannequin did bizarre things to the New Beetle’s interior ergonomics, but for the most part, the public loved it. They also loved the RSi concept and clamored for it to be built.

Then again, the public is always clamoring for concepts to be built, but automakers are (correctly) usually more concerned with building cars they can actually sell. In the early 2000s, however, confidence levels in VW boardrooms were at an all-time high. The decision had recently been made to move ahead with the world-beating Bugatti Veyron project. Volkswagen certainly could spend a few Euros to build an über-Beetle.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver
volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

The production RSi was essentially a road-going version of the racecars used in the New Beetle Cup one-marque series. The fingerprints of Volkswagen’s motorsport division can be found all over the car, from the fixed-back carbon-fiber bucket seats to the aluminum window cranks. Goodbye bud vase, hello LED shift light. VW used the opportunity to launch the new 3.2-liter version of its 24-valve V-6 engine, which later showed up in the U.S. market in the R32 Golf and the Audi TT.

All 250 examples of the RSi were built in Volkswagen’s factory in Puebla, Mexico. The line was separate from the standard New Beetle production line (and from the assembly line for the air-cooled original Beetle, which was built in Mexico until 2003). Because the RSi was the factory’s flagship, a high level of care went into its assembly. The car has a bespoke quality unlike that of any other production VW.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver
volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Every one of the 250 cars was silver, although one additional special blue car was built for then CEO Ferdinand Piëch. The model was never sold in the U.S. or Canada but was offered in Europe, Mexico, Japan, and other overseas markets between 2001 and 2003.

That RSi number 160/250 should find its way to the west coast of Canada is a homecoming of sorts. Horn is the founder of HPA Motorsports, a Volkswagen tuner with three decades of experience making Beetles fly. In 1998, when VW was preparing its RSi concept, Horn was building his seventh VR6-swapped New Beetle. When the RSi came out, his company developed a twin-turbo kit that boosted output to well over 400 horsepower at the wheels.

HPA built five turbocharged RSi New Beetles, as well as a number of similar cars built using U.S.-spec chassis as a basis. Thanks to industry connections, Horn was able to visit the Puebla factory while the RSi was being built there, and struck a deal to buy up parts after the production run ended. Canada’s 15-year gray-market importation rules meant that the RSi has been legal here for years, but the car’s rarity makes it hard to find. When this one showed up in Japan, Horn bought it immediately.

The temptation is there to twin-turbocharge the car, as it’s what HPA does best. At SEMA in 2019, as a send-off to the last generation of VW Beetle, HPA brought a Beetle Dune with a twin-turbo 3.2-liter VR6 that put out 700 horsepower and sent 800 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels.

But the RSi is more than quick enough as it stands, and there’s a nostalgia for the shape and the sound. It’s a car from a time when the internet was in its infancy, smartphones didn’t exist, and Volkswagen was an ascending juggernaut working toward becoming the largest automaker in the world.

This blister-fendered and box-winged Volkswagen is bursting with hubris; its six-cylinder engine snarls through dual exhaust tips. The New Beetle RSi makes a strange and rare dream car, but it is a dream car nonetheless. No factory Beetle ever killed bugs faster.

volkswagen new beetle rsi was one juiced-up bug
Brendan McAleerCar and Driver

Keyword: Volkswagen New Beetle RSi Was One Juiced-Up Bug

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