VW’s range already boasts two drop-tops: the Golf Cabriolet and folding hard-top Eos. Now, the retro-styled VW Beetle joins the convertible contingent, and CAR has driven it in 2.0-litre Turbo guise to see how it stacks up.
Clearly hoping that we winter-weary, Vitamin D-starved Brits would burn ourselves silly and write deludedly nice things while suffering a bout of sunstroke, VW launched the new Beetle Cabriolet in Los Angeles. But SoCal refused to oblige, so this retro-style ragtop got a UK-style test: steady rain interspersed with torrential downpours.
VW Group overlord Ferdinand Piëch might be about to fire his entire events team for not block-booking the sun, but cruising the Pacific Coast Highway with the roof down would have taught us little about how the third-generation Beetle Cabriolet handles our awful weather. In fact, after aquaplaning through Santa Monica, dodging rock falls on nearby Mulholland Highway, and getting very wet when our Kiwi photographer insisted we put the roof down for pictures, we actually came away rather impressed. This is a good convertible.
There are three layers of insulation in the fabric roof, and three layers of external cladding, so it doesn’t feel like you’re sheltering in a sodden tent on a Scouts camping trip whenever the rain is lashing down. And there’s much less road roar than in the Golf Cabriolet, itself on par with the Nissan 370Z Roadster for rubbish refinement. Alas, thick fabric C-pillars mean the Beetle does have a big rearward blindspot.
So, the VW Beetle has survived cabrio conversion – what’s the roof like?
That multi-layered hood rises up in 11 seconds, folds away in just 9.5, and works at up to 31mph. You don’t even need to unlatch it; just press and hold a button by the rear-view mirror. With twin electric motors, the operation is nearly silent too – the electric windows make more noise than the roof. Contrast that with the Beetle’s Mini Convertible rival, whose motor sounds like it’s been given the wrong work assignment as it wheezes the roof into place like a pensioner struggling out of their favourite armchair.
The Beetle’s roof – like its predecessor’s, and the Mini’s – still concertinas down to sit, pram-like, atop the rear deck rather than snugly beneath some bodywork, but it no longer juts so far out back as to resemble one of those inflatable neck cushions so beloved of long-haul flight passengers. It’s still not the neatest crumple of cloth though, so there’s a (standard) tonneau cover you can (manually) cover it with – but it must be a faff to fit as VW didn’t bother to supply one in our test car.
What’s life like in the VW Beetle Cabriolet?
With the roof down, the wind whips strongly enough across your shoulders to make the seatbelt quiver, but with the windows up the buffeting is much reduced, and with the wind deflector in place (across the rear seats) the interior becomes calmer still. Of course it’s not Boxster-stiff, but there’s no obvious scuttle-shake either: the A-pillars are thicker than on the Beetle coupe and built with stronger steel; there’s steel reinforcement across the floor, and overall the new Beetle Cabriolet is 20% more rigid than the car it replaces (confusingly known by Volkswagen as the New Beetle Cabriolet. Is this the Newer Beetle Cabriolet then? Extra New? Really New?)
How does the VW Beetle Cabriolet handle?
On the road it’s no Mini Convertible to drive… but then that’s no bad thing. You sit much lower in the Mini, with meatier steering and a much sharper and more responsive front end, but there’s also terrible torque steer, an awful ride, and a badly ageing interior. The Beetle Cabriolet’s electric steering might be rather remote (only the non-European naturally aspirated 2.5-litre gets a hydraulic rack) but it’s linear and consistent, the ride is much more comfortable (every Cab gets multi-link rear suspension whereas all bar the 2.0T coupe are stuck with a simple torsion beam) and the diff-aping XDS electronics mean there’s next-to-no wrist-tugging to contend with.
What did you reckon to the engine?
Our car’s 197bhp 2.0-litre turbo engine (the same one found in the Mk6 Golf GTI, but detuned to Mk5 Golf GTI power) rasps and burbles politely, the gearbox is light and slick, the floor-mounted accelerator pedal makes the occasional cheeky heel ‘n’ toe gearchange much easier than in the new Mk7 Golf (group test on page 68) and the steering wheel’s rim is pleasingly Rolls Phantom-thin.
You’d have more fun blasting along Mulholland in a Mini, but get it as a hatch with a sunroof instead and don’t unduly compromise a great little car for those odd occasions when it’s actually warm enough to drop the top. If you want a decent small cabrio then the Beetle makes sense. Unlike the Mini, and the woeful Mk6 Golf GTI cab, it isn’t trying to be something it’s not. Rather than feeling like a crap version of a great hot hatch, it feels like a brisk (and well-sorted) convertible.
More sensible engines – all direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder units – are available, and the 104bhp 1.2-litre TSI petrol is likely to be the biggest seller. There’s a meatier 158bhp 1.4 TSI too, and a pair of 1.6 and 2.0 TDIs. Prices start at £18,150 for the 1.2 TSI, which is about £3k more than the Beetle coupe, but also about £3k less than Volkswagen’s own lacklustre Golf Cabriolet and soon-to-be-killed Eos.
What’s the toy-count like on-board the Beetle?
Trim levels? Three of them: Beetle, with air-con and a DAB radio; Design, which adds iPod connectivity, a multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17in alloys and body-coloured door and dashboard panels; and Sport, err, sporting ‘sports’ seats, 18in wheels, cruise control, parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, and a triumvirate of additional dials (including a boost gauge) atop the dash.
There are three ‘special’ models too. Based on the 1.4 TSI, the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s Editions have been created to rustle up feelings of nostalgia in those who remember the original Beetle Convertible built between 1949 and 1980. Each is designed to evoke a decade, with varying results, the 1970s Beetle being burdened with beige leather, a beige roof and brown paint.
Mercifully our car was a bright red Sport (the only spec available for the 197bhp engine) and roof up or down it looks pretty good – it’s lower, longer and wider than the car it replaces, the styling (inspired by 2005’s Ragster concept) now sharper and less like an over-inflated balloon animal.
Cabin quality is much improved too, with everything you touch, push, prod and squeeze comfortably ahead of the Mini. Except the awful little piece of plastic from which the rear seatbelt buckles sprout.
At £24,975 as tested, it’s as pricey as a hotted-up John Cooper Works Mini Convertible and over £4k more than a Cooper S. But the Beetle is more practical, more comfortable, more refined, easier to live with, nicer to drive, and just as quick. Buy the Mini if you want the better handling car, but you’ll get a better convertible if you opt for the Beetle Cabriolet.