Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

Review Notes: 2004 Volkswagen New Beetle convertible 2.0 / manual
Personality Mix of old Beetle and new Golf, with high tech performance gizmos
Quirks Too many to list
Unusual features Active suspension
Above Average: Stare factor
Needs Work In: Devil's in the details; price
Gas Mileage: 24 city, 30 highway (EPA); automatic around 1 mpg less

The Volkswagen New Beetle is one of the more interesting cars out there today, combining a massive disregard for convention, a sincere effort to bring the feel of the original Beetle into the present, and luxury-car technology in a small-car platform. Though the New Beetle sits on the Golf (Rabbit) platform and shares most of the Golf's mechanicals, the interior and exterior are completely different.

From the outside, the New Beetle clearly looks like the Bug, but the headlights are better focused, the engine sits up front and is water-cooled, and the trunk has rather clever hinges that move the lid up and out. Inside, the single round pod remains, with a large speedometer and small tachometer and fuel gauge. The temperature gauge is gone, but in its place is a three-way light: blue for cold, off for normal temperature, and presumably red for warning. The Beetle's backlighting has been replaced by the current Volkswagen blueish-purple.  Other vestages of the original include the metal door sills and built-in vase, though that is almost where the resemblance ends.

The large windshield is not a perfectly straight piece of plate glass, as with the original, but the curve is fairly gentle, and the window is farther away from the driver, a good thing overall. The tall side windows start well below the driver's head and continue above it, for an unusually good sense of space in a convertible - or any other car. The arch shape works well for the driver, but not so well for back seat passengers, whose view is pretty well obstructed. Their legs are also obstructed, since the New Beetle convertible has very little rear seat space, and not a great amount of head room, either. To be fair, it is very easy to get into the back seat compared with many other two-door cars; the front seats don't just lean forward, but easily move about six inches forward on a clever lever system. Getting into the front seats is also easy, but once inside, it's a real chore to get the seat belt on. It's positioned well behind the driver, so you have to turn around and reach back into the small space between the seat and the door, and the buckle itself is allowed to fall all the way down near the floor. The seat belt is clearly not designed for tall people, being below the shoulders of even a five foot ten driver, slipping off often. Head room is very good in front, and the steering wheel has a manual tilt and telescope feature which is very handy and clever.

Some of the New Beetle's quirks are based on a desire to hold true the original, but most are either Volkswagen standard features or inexplicable. The emergency brake has a squeaky plastic dustguard unlike other cars; you can't use the parking lights alone, but must have the headlights on; the power window controls are on the lower part of the door, the trunk and gas cap release on the lower part of the door behind the driver's seat. Some of the differences are incredibly clever - a manually telescoping steering wheel, the way the trunk is hinged, the red LEDs indicating that doors are locked, the four buttons on either side of the stereo to make tuning easier, the "all at once" power window control; and some are simply inane - the hard-to-use cruise control, the horribly designed front seat belts, the lack of any place (other than the cupholders) to put loose change, the placement of the CD changer in the center console (which means you no longer have a usable center console), the easily broken and far-too-accessible-to-children foldout rear cigarette lighter. We also have to wonder about the decision to have no manual door locks - only power locks.

As with any modern car, the New Beetle comes with dual cupholders up front. These have clever spring-loaded levers that push against the sides of the cup to hold smaller ones in place, but unless you rotate it to the right - against the passenger seat - you can't store larger things (such as soda bottles) in them, because the bottles would hit the center console. Even if you do rotate it, you can only fit one tall beverage in, and the passenger won't be happy. The system, like the emergency brake and for that matter the ignition switch and tiny, nearly-useless sun visors (an important feature on a convertible!), feels oddly cheap. There is also very little in the way of interior lighting, unless you count the lights above the visors that only come on when you open up the mirror.

The interior carries forward the retro theme only so far. The metal door sills have power mirror controls and power lock switches built in, along with too-small release handles, large, moderately tacky closing handles, and massive speakers. The exceedingly expansive dashboard top is thoughtfully made of a dull black material, and we strongly suggest you keep it away from ArmorAll, unless you want to see a lot of windshield glare - the bane of all those cab forward cars, and not completely eliminated by the use of dark materials on the New Beetle, either. Other parts of the upper instrument panel are a textured black plastic, and underneath the black areas throughout the car are gray areas. If this was an American car, it would no doubt be dinged for using cheap looking materials, but as it is German, we will say the interior is better than all competitors.

Our test model had heated mirrors (linked with the rear defrosters), the aforementioned active suspension, and heated front seats. These have a continuously variable control conveniently located beneath the climate control, on either side of the hazard lights, active suspension cutoff, and rear defroster buttons. The climate control itself is well designed and easy to use, with a minimum of pointless displays of technology: one knob for heat mix, one for which vent you get (continuously variable - you can choose the mix between, say, defrost and heat, to get it just the way you like it), and one for the fan. Buttons control a/c and recirculation.

The stereo is also easy to use and figure out. Ours had the optional Monsoon system with a CD changer using our center console. On the top, bottom, and sides of the volume knob were buttons for bass, midrange, treble, and fade/balance; on the right, buttons surrounded the stereo scan button for tape, FM, AM, and CD. The system is very easy to use on the road without too much fuss or eye movement. The integrated cassette player was easily controlled with rewind, fast forward, reverse, and Dolby buttons. We appreciated the broad range of audio tuning available with bass, treble, and midrange controls; most cars limit you to five positions each way, this one lets you have nine positions, and you can really turn the bass down, for listening to the news, or up, for classical or hard rock. Most of the time, you won't need to turn it up much, since the optional Monsoon system provides excellent sound with strong, clear bass.

Power comes from the standard Volkswagen 2-liter four-cylinder, with an optional turbocharger. The base engine, which we tested, has 115 horsepower, below par by today's standards (more than the base Civic, but less than the Civic EX, Toyota Corolla, Dodge Neon, etc.) especially on a car selling for over $20,000. To be fair, the Golf, Jetta, and New Beetle are all small and light, and can get away with this engine - albeit without stunning acceleration. Volkswagen estimates 0-60 times for the convertible with manual transmission at 11.4 seconds, considerably slower than most modern vehicles, though good enough for most use. In our experience, it felt sprightly enough in sprints - partly because the engine is fairly quiet - but less than ideal at highway speeds. It seems to have been carefully tuned to preserve as much of the original air-cooled engine sound as possible on a modern fuel-injected, computer-controlled, precision-engineered, water-cooled powerplant. The turbo boosts power considerably.

Handling is excellent, though that can at least partly be attributed to the optional active suspension, which works with the antilock brakes and optional traction control to prevent (not completely) wheel spin, tire squealing, and the like. It certainly makes the New Beetle feel composed through sharp, hard turns, at least partly by preventing body lean. The New Beetle feels very confident on dry surfaces, less so on wet roads. Braking is fast and confident, without nosedive. Torque steer is essentially absent, eliminated by a combination of good suspension design, active suspension, and relatively low torque engine.

The convertible top is controlled by a single button conveniently located next to the handbrake. You press a button to release a center locking device - none of this moving the sun visors out of the way and releasing two latches on other sides of the car stuff! - then twist the device with its conveniently large handle. Then you press the button, and if you're lucky, it'll work the first time. If not, try it again! The temperature display goes from blue to yellow and shows a "convertible top opening" graphic, and the top opens up and neatly folds itself in back. You can release the button when it beeps again. Putting it back on again is the same basic process, though you have to wait for the beep, then press the latch release, twist it, pull down, then re-twist the latch again.

When the top is down, it doesn't look as though you can drive it right away, especially since there's a top cover you can fit over the it in that position. We found that even at top highway speeds, the top doesn't budge a bit, it simply stays right in position. That's good, because we never did manage to fit the cover into place. We could get one half latched, but not the other. Many people will never use the thing, and it's possible ours had been abused before we got it - 6,000 miles is old for a fleet car that gets handed to a different person every week! The windstop (to prevent those annoying back-of-the-neck winds every convertible has) worked nicely, though it's a $250 extra-cost option that cannot be used when anyone (or a child seat) is in the back seats. A scarf works well, too.

Perhaps they did it because this is a convertible, but Volkswagen installed an extra power window switch: in addition to the four regular ones, this one raises or lowers all the windows at once. Since raising or lowering the top automatically brings all the windows down a bit, this is an easy way to get them back up again.

Unfortunately, while the New Beetle is a pleasure with the top down, it is also a rattlebox with the top up, squeaking like made on each side. This happened despite the clever sealing system which involved having the windows drop an inch each time the door is opened (to get right into the groove). We've never encountered this much squeaking on a convertible before, and if this was simply a problem with our test model, please let us know. Visibility is good with the top up (except for the inevitable rear corners, and the aforementioned tiny sun visors). Also, to get the convertible, you really give up a decent sized trunk. The New Beetle gamely tries, with a special pass-through for skis, fold-down rear seats, and a clever trunk lid that opens out and up to maximize interior space; but especially if you carry around the windstop and convertible cover, you don't have a huge amount of space in there. It's more than the Toyota MR2, but less than most other cars. The New Beetle form factor also cuts into back seat space, so if you have large children, they won't appreciate being back there (particularly with the poor side visibility when the top is up). Small children will be just fine, though we found the LATCH system hard to use, and never did find the rear latch; the owner's manual didn't mention it.

The New Beetle Convertible GLS, a relatively high trim line, sells for over $22,000 including destination. That includes four-wheel antilock disk brakes, fog lights, side airbags, automatic rollover supports, pollen-filtered air conditioning, cruise, pinch-protected power windows, remote keyless entry, power locks and heated power mirrors, height-adjustable front seats and a telescoping tilt-steering wheel, remote trunk and gas cap release, antitheft alarm (for the vehicle and the stereo), and a four year, 50,000 mile warranty that covers both mechanical problems and roadside assistance. Our model came with a $325 audio upgrade, $280 active suspension, $250 wind blocker, and $150 cold weather package (including heated front seats and heated washer nozzles). A five-speed automatic transmission is optional.

Interestingly, while the New Beetle is assembled in Mexico, nearly half of the components (40%) come from Germany. Another 22% come from Mexico, and 8% come from the United States. The engine was built in Mexico, the transmission in Argentina. Volkswagen has had a strong presence in South America and Mexico for many decades, and is well established there.

The New Beetle convertible certainly gets a lot of attention, with the stares and questions that normally you only get when driving something new and hot - the last time we got this much attention driving a car, it was the Chrysler PT Cruiser before production had gotten into full swing. As far as convertibles go, it isn't the most practical; that would be the Chrysler Sebring, with its large trunk, comfortable, large interior, and 200 horsepower V6 engine. The Sebring is less stylish, but also less quirky, and is a very good "primary car" for those with families or grocery-getting needs, with its quiet interior and comfortable seating position. Those who are seeking all-around excitement and performance may want to look at the Toyota MR2, which has a more powerful engine, more fun handling, and a similar price, albeit with only two seats and a smaller trunk yet - but the manual top is much faster to get on and off. The MR2 also gets its share of stares. Just don't get the sequentially shifted manumatic if you know how to drive a stick.

The Volkswagen New Beetle is a generally fun car that takes its heritage seriously, yet has been updated with all the latest technology. Just don't buy one without driving it a couple of times and making sure you'll be comfortable with it on a daily basis.