EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 21, 2013

New Beetle Convertible looks forward

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — It was probably just a flashback, a sound out of my memory and imagination, but while driving a Volkswagen Beetle Convertible last week, when creeping slowly or stopped at a light so that wind noise and tire chatter didn’t enter through the fabric roof, I thought I heard faint hints of the old, familiar engine clatter, the merry tip-tapping and the whirring, staccato clicks that classic Volkswagen bugs of the 1960s and ‘70s emitted.

But that couldn’t be right, because the noise I thought I heard came from the front, where the engine resides in today’s thoroughly contemporary, front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Beetle. In the classic versions from decades ago, the suitcase-size engine was in the rear, turning the rear wheels.

Besides, today’s model is only made to look like the ancestral bug. Volkswagen brought out the New Beetle in 1998 as a retro cruiser meant to recapture the playful spirit people associated with the company’s first car. What’s more, our current version of the Beetle (the “New” in its name was dropped), aims to stand even farther apart from the original.

Introduced in September 2011, the current-generation, 2013 Beetle is expanding the model’s allure beyond nostalgia buffs who went for the first New Beetle, explained Charles Daher Jr., manager at Commonwealth Motors, Lawrence, which sells Chevrolet, Honda, Kia, Nissan and Volkswagen vehicles.

The Beetle Convertible is a new addition. It joined the two-door hard-top version late last year as a 2013 model. Both renditions of today’s Beetle are less bubble-shaped and more streamlined, and they offer more get-up-and-go.

“The new body style is sportier, and it has a turbo available, which makes it a really, really fun car to drive,” said Daher. “The old one had nostalgia, but people who weren’t part of the whole Beetle craze weren’t interested in it. Now it has transitioned into a regular vehicle. Now it’s hitting a new, younger age bracket.”

That realignment also shows clearly in the cabin, he noted. The interior of the first modern Beetle strove to recreate the look and feel of the original, but the result was a cabin that some people found clunky and confining. In today’s model, he said, “the new dash is more usable. It’s more of a normal vehicle interior now.”

I second that. I found the dash very usable in the Beetle convertible I test-drove last week. VW has a knack for tailoring car cabins to accommodate us humans very well, with comfortable, no-nonsense configurations that are elegantly intuitive and instantly comprehensible. But at the same time, the interior of the Beetle I drove had an inviting, throw-back look thanks to such details as two-tone seat upholstery and a wide, flat panel that spanned the dash, colored the same baby blue as the car’s exterior. The feature was a retro salute to the original bug, without compromising the model’s contemporary appeal.

My model also had a turbocharged engine, giving the small, nimble Beetle a very playful attitude that made around-town jaunts entertaining. The model’s standard engine is an effective, 175-horsepower five-cylinder. The turbocharged, four-cylinder engine option brings a horsepower boost to 200. Volkswagen also sells a turbocharged diesel-engine version as a high-mileage option, obtaining a government fuel-economy rating of 28 mile per gallon in city driving, and 41 mpg on the highway.

Overall, I enjoyed driving the new Beetle Convertible on its merits alone, as a sprite and agile, well-spirited little pacer. But I also appreciated its retro appeal, even though that appeal now is toned down from the first New Beetle of 1998.

To recap, the original VW bug or beetle (never its official name) was an international economy car that spread from Germany after World War II. The German word Volkswagen means people’s car, and the company’s original aim was to make an auto that common folk could afford.

According to lore, the concept won support from the government of Adolf Hitler, fiend and German political leader of the 1930s and ‘40s. When America and its allies turned to rebuild the country after defeating Hitler in the war, high-volume production of the people’s car emerged as part of Germany’s peace-time re-industrialization program.

Any car intended for everyday, middle-class people in Europe has to be cheap because average Janes and Joes there just don’t have the purchasing power enjoyed by middle-class Americans.

The original bugs were ingeniously engineered to be economical. When they came to the United States in the 1950s and grew in popularity through the ‘60s, they were low-cost runners that appealed mostly to families seeking an inexpensive second car and to students and other young people who were still too low on the income ladder to afford better.

That’s why a lot of today’s creaky boomers associate the quirky model with their vanished youth. That makes it a perfect object of retro appeal.

At the same time, VW is wise to dilute the throw-back aspects of the new Beetle. Volkswagen today is one of the world’s leading auto companies. Far advanced from its origin as an economy-car specialist, it is a mainline manufacturer that sells a dozen models in the United States. Volkswagen’s continued success depends on making autos that appeal to people who are making memories today.

Charles Daher Jr. of Commonwealth Motors pointed out that the company enjoys notable success selling its Jetta and Passat models, mainstream four-door sedans. The Beetle and, now, the Beetle Convertible give it an image car that offers sporty playfulness for today’s younger drivers, and also a link to the past.

“It makes them different,” Daher said. “It helps define the brand and show where they came from, but it also gives them a model that can go after new people.”

2013 VW Beetle Convertible Vehicle type: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-wheel-drive compact convertible Price range: $25,790 to $33,090 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 12 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 3 years/36,000 miles free scheduled maintenance Base engine: 2.5-liter I5 Power: 170 horsepower at 5,700 rpm; 177 lb.-ft. torque at 4,250 rpm Base transmission: 6-speed automatic Fuel economy: 21 mpg city; 27 mpg highway Wheelbase: 100 inches Length: 168 inches Width: 71 inches Height: 58 inches Weight: 3,206 pounds Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons Turning circle: 35.4 feet