VW gives us a butchier Beetle

When Volkswagen flew me out to Las Vegas to drive the 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune, I had high hopes. I learned to drive in a sand rail buggy with an air-cooled engine, I've traveled up and down the baja peninsula in a 1969 air-cooled baja bug, and I currently race a two-seater 1600cc air-cooled race car in desert endurance races.

Could a new dune buggy from Volkswagen, based on the current front-engine Beetle, measure up to those past examples?

Alas, my off-road dreams were not to be realized. While the Dune is a fine special edition and a great way to keep the Beetle fresh in consumers' minds, it was never meant to be a real dune buggy, despite the name.

Go big or go home

There are a few nods to the baja bugs of yore, like a slightly wider stance and ride height. And when I mean slight I mean hardly enough to make a functional difference, though the proportions do make it look a bit more aggressive.

Volkswagen Beetle Dune
Volkswagen

Other off-road inspirational touches include a large central air intake that widens toward the bottom, a lighting package with bi-xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lights, and a rear diffuser that acts as a skid plate. I just wouldn't trust those skid plates to deflect anything besides small road debris. And while we didn't get a chance to sample the Dune at night, I doubt those headlamps would cut through a dark desert night, bi-xenon or no.

And don't even get me started on the 18-inch aluminum wheels. They look pretty, but wouldn't make it five miles through the rocks of the desert before bending, breaking the bead on your tire.

Volkswagen Beetle Dune

You can see a few similarities between the new Beetle Dune and the class 11 race car of Desert Dingo in the background.

Volkswagen

Still, once you get past the fact that the Dune was never met for any kind of off-road travel past a graded dirt road, it's a pretty zippy car to drive. The 1.8-liter turbocharged engine spools up quickly and offers up 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

The only transmission option is a six-speed automatic with a shiftable sport mode. No paddle shifters in sight though; all gear changes are done on the stick. Leaving the transmission to itself results in fairly quick shifts, and it pushes into a higher gear as soon as possible, all in the name of better fuel economy. Shifting yourself means you can eke out every last drop of power, but be warned that it will shift for you should you let the rpms go too high or too low.

EPA fuel ratings are 25 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway and 28 mpg combined. My afternoon in the car netted 27.3 mpg over 200 miles or so, much of that on snowy mountain roads.

From desert sand to mountain snow

Yes, it can snow outside of Las Vegas. Our drive took us up Mt. Charleston to about 8,000 feet in elevation. Mother Nature had dumped 4 inches of snow, but the road had been plowed and sanded. Still, it's easy to find ice at higher elevations and the Continental Pro-Contact all-season tires found their grip quite easily. Keeping the car in second gear mitigated downhill speed.

Volkswagen Beetle Dune

An unexpected snow storm puts the Beetle Dune in a strange environment.

Emme Hall/CNET

The colder temperatures made the seat warmers a welcome addition. Dual-zone automatic climate control would also have been welcome, but that is only available with the technology package.

The Dune comes standard with a 6.3-inch touchscreen that allows for swiping and pinch-zooming. Bluetooth and USB connectivity are also present, as well as a rearview camera, and a parking sensor.

You'll also find Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink. Just connect your phone with the proper USB cable and the system will display a car-appropriate version of your phone's home screen on the car's infotainment system.

The Dune will be available in sandstorm yellow, pure white or deep black pearl. The Sandstorm Yellow vehicles feature body color interior trim, which adds a nice pop of brightness to the harder plastic surfaces. Contrasting piping on the sport seats is also a nice touch.

The 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune Coupe will go on sale in the Spring, starting at $23,995. The convertible will go on sale later in the year.

Sure, I was hoping for a more off-road worthy Beetle, but that's not going to be profitable for Volkswagen. Adding another trim line keeps the Beetle fresh in the automotive world and the slightly more aggressive stance should appeal to those think the classic VW is too feminine.

Just keep it on the pavement, folks.

CNET accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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