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Every VW Golf R and European hot hatch can trace their roots to this mad 2001 VW Beetle

Sanjay · Aug 16, 2020 11:00 AM

2001 VW Beetle RSI

Do you know the Incredible Hulk? All it took was a boatload of gamma radiation, and the once soft-spoken, unimposing Dr. Bruce Banner was suddenly a rage-filled green killing machine. 

2001 VW Beetle vs RSI

Well it's silver but you get the point

In a way, that’s what Volkswagen is too. Hear me out; I’ve not gone off my rockers just yet. See, talk about VW and you’ll most probably think of sedans (swoopy or otherwise) and maybe some SUVs, but they generally have that serious German doctor demeanour about them.

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2001 VW Beetle RSI Cup Car

Turns out they race pretty well too

Once or twice in its history, VW has poured weapons-grade radiation on their modest subjects too, seemingly just for the hell of it. In this context, the modest subject is the New Beetle and by radiation, I mean going ham with performance mods. 

2001 VW Beetle Cutaway

"See that, Dieter? Pretty sure that fits a VR6..."

Which is honestly what Wolfsburg’s finest did back in 2001. They took a cute Bug, ripped out its puny stock engine, stuffed a bigger one in place, fed it a lightweight alloy diet and fattened it up in all the right places. The result is the Volkswagen New Beetle RSi, aka the Incredible Bug.

An undeniable VW icon

2001 VW Beetle RSI Engine VR6

Instead of faffing about with the standard engine, a 3.2-litre VR6 was shoved into the frunk, making 221 PS and 320 Nm. Grip was not a problem, as VW slapped its 4Motion all-wheel drive system on it, and drivers got to bang through six speeds of pure manual joy.

2001 VW Beetle RSI rear three quarter

You can probably fit apples in that exhaust...

Adding tons of snap, crackle and pop to this is the factory Remus Duplex exhaust system. It should be pretty obvious that it goes like a bat out of hell; the century sprint is dispatched in just 6.4 seconds, and you’ll reach 225 km/h if you keep the throttle pinned. Nothing humbug about this Bug, that's for sure.

2001 VW Beetle RSI interior

Notice a distinct lack of vase

They could've called it a day there but is it really German if they didn't go all the way? The folks at 'wagen took liberties to bathe the interior in carbon fibre and strip away any un-racecar bits so sorry Karen, the flower pot has to go. 

2001 VW Beetle RSI interior details

In place of creature comforts are bright orange Recaros and billet aluminium trim pieces. Though it still looks pretty similar to the bog-standard Beetle, there were delectable details all over - such as the oil pressure, oil temperature and voltage gauges sitting where the radio once did.

2001 VW Beetle RSI rear three quarter

T H I C C or whatever kids say these days

But subtle it is not on the outside - its got curves, son! The Bug’s characteristic pumped arches were properly fattened up and it has not one but two spoilers at the back because downforce is very important.

2001 VW Beetle RSI front three quarter

Uprated big brakes hide behind the 18-inch OZ Superturismo wheels affixed on sport suspension - giving it an imposing stance.

Started a hot-hatch revolution

Dr Ferdinand Piech

The late Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Piëch was instrumental in the RSi's journey

As preposterous as this article's title may seem, it's the truth. When the RSi was first unveiled as a concept in 1999, the media generally brushed it off as a neat design study only fit for a show but audience reaction told a different tale. The public lapped it up, and much to almost everyone’s surprise, VW turned it into a reality two years later. 

2001 VW Beetle RSI Cabrio

Out of 250, only 2 cabrio prototypes were made

All 250 units were sold during the model’s run from 2001 to 2003 so it was obvious - the people desperately wanted a hot hatch. VW then took what they learnt from the RSi and applied it to the Golf MK4 platform, thereby creating the similarly VR6-powered, six-speed manual Golf R32.

2002 VW Golf MK 4 R32

Fun fact: The R32 had the world's first DSG.

The R32 was a massive hit, so VW decided to replicate its success again two years later with the MK 5 R32. That also flew off dealerships and with the sixth generation, VW dropped the ‘32’ bit (partly because it didn’t have a 3.2-litre VR6 anymore) and just called it the Golf R.

Golf MK7 R, A35 AMG, M135i

The three kings of the Euro hot hatch clan, perhaps?

For a while, VW was barely challenged in the hot hatch arena. Then, you know, other carmakers also wanted a slice of the hot hatch pie and through competition, we got things like the Mercedes-Benz A35 AMG and BMW M135i for example.

2001 VW Beetle RSI in blue,Ferdinand Piech's personal car

Piëch's blue example is the only one in the world

So the next time you see a humble Beetle toddling along, don’t be so quick to pooh-pooh it - remember that it is only through its maniacal cousin that we finally got to experience the revival of the hot hatch era again.

Bonus video!

Although chances of sampling an original Beetle RSi remains a dream, we've at least got to experience the scalpel-sharp MK7 Golf R recently.

Jason would tell you, but he's still shell-shocked, so the video will have to do. Enjoy!

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Senior Writer

With humble beginnings collecting diecast models and spending hours virtually tuning dream cars on the computer, his love of cars has delightfully transformed into a career. Sanjay enjoys how the same passion for cars transcends boundaries and brings people together.

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