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VW loses Beetle Convertible's chick car stigma (hands-on)

The convertible version of VW's Beetle flattens the roof to show off some 1940s style, and hits the showrooms with diesel and turbo gasoline engines choices.

Alison Lakin
Alison Lakin
Alison Lakin

Alison Lakin

Alison Lakin has been reporting on all things automotive since 2008. She has covered the auto industry for numerous online publications including PopSci.com and the Los Angeles Times and is currently managing editor at DriverSide.com.

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5 min read
2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

VW takes the top off its new Beetle, yet still hopes for gains in the male demographic.

Volkswagen

Southern California tends to be sunny and warm year-round, so it came as no surprise that Volkswagen cleverly chose the region to debut its all-new 2013 Beetle Convertible.

The launch follows that of the Beetle hardtop in 2011, where we set eyes on a more masculine, more modern take on the once-iconic Beetle first released in 1949. This new Beetle is a departure from the original in many ways (power steering and anti-lock brakes spring to mind as some of the more minor upgrades), but more importantly, it signifies a leap forward from the previous iteration -- a bubbly, cartoonish Flower Power-mobile complete with in-dash vase. Sure, that Beetle had its fans, but VW wanted to broaden its audience with the next generation. I had a chance to take the 2013 Beetle Convertible into the winding roads of north Los Angeles to see just how different the new model is.

Volkswagen repeatedly uses the word 'masculine' to describe this Beetle because, well, it's trying to attract more male buyers. So far, the design, with a flattened roofline, clearly defined wheel arches, and a more steeply angled windshield, seems to balance out the male-female buyer split. VW is seeing a 50-50 take rate for the Beetle Turbo, a trend it hopes to continue with the Convertible.

There's a good chance it can happen based on just the styling. While rounded headlights still feature heavily in the front-end, the stretched horizontal grille modernizes the look and ties the design together. That streamlined roof has been carried over to the convertible, presenting a low-to-the-ground look, and both hood and tail-end are more angular than the predecessor's. The result is a longer, leaner appearance that manages to capture the essence of the original Beetle without emitting a happy-go-lucky Barbie car vibe. Add the option of outfitting the cars with '50s, '60s, or '70s styling cues, and VW has presented a wide range of options to appeal to retro enthusiasts and new buyers alike.

2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

Looking good with the top down.

Volkswagen

A dynamic drive
The front-wheel-drive Beetle Convertible comes equipped with three engine choices, each sporting unique performance qualities: a somewhat perky 2.5-liter inline-five, a robust turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder, and a highly efficient 2-liter TDI turbocharged diesel. At just about 3,200 pounds, the Beetle isn't light enough that the 2.5-liter's 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque will set any hearts aflutter. I found, however, that the engine has enough power to overtake confidently, and its pickup will satisfy most drivers.

The turbo 2-liter outpaces the base engine's numbers, an engine choice designed to appeal to the male buying group on which VW is banking. Each automatic-equipped Beetle has an 'S' mode that holds rpms higher to give the driver more immediate throttle response, and of all the group, the Turbo makes the most use of this mode. Its 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque are sent to the wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission (also available on the TDI) or VW's DSG automated manual (available in all trims). One of the best on the market, VW's dual-clutch automatic prepares gears with one clutch while another clutch is operating the lower gear, making for near-seamless shift transitions.

For the more fuel-conscious, the TDI -- with 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque--is a solid bet. This ain't your dad's diesel car; the diesel engine is whisper-quiet as it pushes through an impressive amount of torque, and it rakes in solid fuel economy numbers: 28 mpg city and 41 mpg highway for the manual and 28 mpg city and 37 mpg highway for the automatic. I actually fared better than the estimates while cruising through congested Los Angeles streets.

2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

Volkswagen showed off a little history at this drive event.

Volkswagen

Seated behind the wheel, I was struck by the Beetle Convertible's roomy cabin. It may be a small car, but it has inches of extra headroom, and VW squeezed in an additional 3.4 cubic feet of interior room over the previous model, despite the lowered roofline. Within the cleanly designed interior is one standout feature: the exterior color-matched dash panel housing a dual-level glove box (an idea executed better in some paint schemes than others). The body-hugging and well-bolstered seats come with standard seat heaters, and are height and lumbar support-adjustable. Thanks in part to stiffened A pillars and extra structural reinforcement, the Beetle Convertible remains balanced in tight corners with body roll unaffected by the addition of the drop-top. The steering, once you crank it, delivers fairly precise input as well, though off-center steering felt vague. Visibility is always somewhat of a concern in convertibles, so I'm wondering why VW opted to install the smallest rearview mirror known to man. Still, side visibility is far and away better than the Mini's.

When it comes to dropping the top, deploying the roof is a swift affair, taking just 9.4 seconds to open and 11 seconds to close (the time difference is due to the automatic latching mechanisms). It even has the capacity to be operated at up to 31 mph, handy when I found myself in one of those rare Southern Californian rainstorms. Impressive, too, is the lack of wind noise. VW has taken special care to insulate the convertible roof, and I dare say the difference between it and the hardtop is barely noticeable. Wind turbulence isn't an issue as long as you have the wind deflector. But oddly enough, it's only available as an accessory, and one ride on the freeway with the top down will confirm its necessity.

Technology hits and misses
All Beetles come with Bluetooth connectivity, a trip computer, an auxiliary input jack, and an integrated previous-generation iPod cable located in the glove box. VW offers an additional USB port connector, but it's a little disappointing that a separate USB port isn't standard. Still, hooking up a music device is simple and the knob-plus-touch-screen configuration makes it easy to scroll through music selections. In a few short steps, I connected my iPhone 4S via Bluetooth to stream music and made calls hands-free.

2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

The Beetle Convertible comes with Bluetooth, iPod support, and an auxiliary input standard, but navigation is extra.

Volkswagen

An optional hard drive-based navigation system with touch screen replaces the standard button/screen layout. The menus are straightforward, the touch screen is responsive, and most drivers won't have a problem navigating through the system upon first go. I'd like to see richer content though, as the system is missing basic functions like traffic updates (rather important in Los Angeles) and weather. Additional information can be found in the instrument cluster. Borrowed from Audi, the small screen between the gauges serves to tell the driver everything from fuel economy to current song playing. It's a nice way to get info without taking your hands off the wheel.

Battle of the retro convertibles
The previous generation damaged Beetle credibility among buyers with a Y chromosome, and it'll take more than a few angular body lines and a turbocharged engine to change their minds. The new design will help, as will its relative lack of direct competition. There are plenty of convertibles on the market -- just spend a few hours driving around LA for confirmation of that -- but the Beetle is specifically targeting the much-loved Mini Cooper Convertible, which presents stiff competition and an equally loyal fan base. The Beetle can't quite beat the zippy Mini's driving characteristics, but there are a number of areas, such as cargo space, headroom, and diesel engine choice, where it KO's the Mini. Factor in a starting price of $24,995 for the 2.5-liter, which undercuts the Mini by $1,000, and the Beetle suddenly makes for a compelling buy.