First Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible

Sometimes things sound better on paper than they do in the real world.  Take the Pontiac Aztek, for instance.

Autosavant was invited to the global media launch for the all-new 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible in Los Angeles.  As an east coast dweller, the notion of visiting sunny Southern California in late November certainly had appeal.  Plus, I’d have the opportunity for my first-ever visit to the Los Angeles Auto Show if I could work out my schedule.  Well, everything worked out schedule-wise, but the sunny weather turned into an uncharacteristically long wet spell for the area.  I never bothered to check the weather forecast before departing; I just assumed that Santa Monica and Malibu would have beautiful convertible weather.  Or not.

However, some ideas actually do make sense in the real world.  For instance, creating a convertible version of the VW Beetle.  Though sales of the Beetle convertible have traditionally been dwarfed by their fixed-roof cousins (out of 21.5 million original Beetles produced between 1939 and 2003, only about 330,000 were cabriolets), the addition of the convertible will increase sales to the Beetle line by about 20 to 30 percent vs. having a coupe-only lineup.  More sales are all part of VW’s goal of 800,000 U.S. sales by 2018.

Though the original rear-engine, air-cooled Beetle had to wait ten years from its 1939 debut (plus through the duration of World War II) before Karmann chopped the roof off of a Type 1 Beetle’s roof to create the first convertible, and Volkswagen waited five years from the New Beetle’s 1998 debut to roll out its convertible variant in 2003.  This time, VW only made buyers wait one year for a convertible.

As with nearly every convertible, turning a fixed-roof car into a convertible requires far more than just hacksawing or blowtorching the roof off the car and screwing on a vinyl roof.  Because half of the car’s torsional structure – the roof – is absent, so that structure must be somehow replaced with reinforcements elsewhere.  The Beetle Convertible adds A-pillar reinforcement for rollover protection, ultra-high-strength steel between the B-pillars, additional sheetmetal in the lower body sidemembers, and an extra rear panel that includes pyrotechnic rollover protection.

The convertible-specific chassis updates are good ones.  For one, it has very good torsional stiffness; at 17.8 Hz, it’s 20 percent stiffer than the New Beetle convertible was.  During our time in all three Beetle Convertibles (base, TDI, Turbo), it was apparent that this car had a stiff structure each time we had to swerve to dodge rocks that washed onto the canyon roads above Malibu.  Once in a while, an impact was unavoidable, and a shudder made its way through the steering wheel, but certainly nothing even close to convertibles of years ago.

In the Beetle coupe world, only the Beetle Turbo gets multilink independent rear suspension, while the base car and TDI models get simpler and cheaper torsion beam suspension.  However, due to the size and location of the underbody reinforcements, every convertible gets the more sophisticated multilink (independent) rear suspension.  In real-world driving, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference except in limited circumstances (which typically would include near-the-limit handling on a bumpy road), but it’s nice to know that the convertible gets the higher-spec rear suspension.

Although the New Beetle had a well-deserved reputation as a “chick car” (with a female-to-male buyer ratio of 72% to 28%), Volkswagen has tried hard to balance out the Beetle’s buyer base with the new model.  We questioned at the time whether this would actually work.  So far, things are improving, with 40% of all Beetle buyers being males.  Volkswagen is probably pleased with that progress.  Further, some 60 percent of Beetle Turbo buyers are males.  That makes sense, since the Turbo is the most masculine, most sporty model in the Beetle lineup.  That being said, unless you’re rolling in the Beetle Turbo or Beetle Turbo Convertible, expect to hear that your car is “cute” or to feel a bit self-conscious unless you’re extremely comfortable in your masculinity.

Besides losing structural integrity in the conversion from coupe to convertible, many cars lose quite a bit of utility as well.  That’s also true of the Beetle Convertible, though VW engineers did their best to mitigate some of those compromises.  For instance, the convertible is about 200 pounds heavier than the coupe – but VW installs only torque-heavy engines that minimize the sensation of the car’s weight.  Unlike in most convertibles, there is a decent amount of utility – VW put a pass-through cubby into the cargo area when

Nevertheless, despite persistent dampness, my driving partner and I did manage to drive a few miles with the top down, and all of us basically stayed dry while driving – and even while moving from hotel, to restaurant, to car.  When the rain began to again pick up in the middle of a drive in the Beetle Turbo Convertible, we quickly decided to end the experiment and close the top.  After holding the button for just 11 seconds, the fully automatic top closed and latched itself.  The only evidence left that we had been rained on was a bit of mist on our heads and quite a bit of water on the rear-seat headrests.  They’re completely in the line of fire of rain.  However, with no Beetle Convertibles coming with cloth seats (they’re either V-Tex synthetic leather or ya know, actual leather), it’s just a matter of wiping down minor water mishaps.

With the roof closed, wind noise was basically a non-issue.  The inside of the roof is nicely lined and insulates the interior from temperature extremes and environmental sounds.  In fact, the top’s lining (which is identical on all models of the car) is nicer than the headliner in some closed-roof cars.  It’s very nicely finished, and in fact rivals the nicest convertible top linings on the market.

Roof open, there’s a tradition for Beetle Convertibles to have a high top stack.  This one is visually lower than in older cars, which helps rearward visibility and adds to the smooth flow of the design.  There’s a standard vinyl tonneau cover that you can install over the top which raises it a bit more and slows the process of closing the top when poor weather threatens or when you arrive at your destination.  VW also throws in a standard folding wind deflector with all Beetle Convertibles.  It’s a little clunky and hard to fold (not to mention hard to see through in your rearview mirror) but there’s a small cubby in the trunk designed specifically to hold it.

Volkswagens have been known for years as cars with very nice interiors that don’t necessarily hold up to years of use.  In recent years, VW interiors have been something of a mixed bag; the Jetta (except for the GLI) is plastic not-so-fantastic and the Passat’s is nice in most places that you can touch, while the Golf/GTI and Touareg are top-of-class.  The Beetle’s interior  falls somewhere in the middle.  It’s nice, and has several thoughtful touches (reasonably ample storage, for instance) and its designers did a nice job of making hard black plastic and painted plastic look good.  (The faux wood dash inlay to be included in the upcoming Fender edition Beetle is very cool, as it evokes the finish of a Fender guitar.)

Speaking of Fender, you can get optional Fender audio in every Beetle trimline.  Though no cars with the standard audio system were present to compare side-by-side, the Fender system sounded great.  Very clear throughout the range, very solid bass, and clear trebles.  It also has plenty of power for top-down motoring.  You could get a ticket for violating local noise ordinances driving a Fender-equipped Beetle Convertible with the top down if you cranked the music up too loudly.

On the road, the Beetle Convertible is a pretty engaging drive at slightly-faster-than-normal speeds.  The electrically assisted power steering in the TDI and Turbo has good heft and provides decent feedback (actually, it has more prompt turn-in than the hydraulically-assisted steering in the base car does), and in general, the car just feels buttoned down.  Ride quality is very good without feeling too soft – and that’s good, since most buyers of this car will spend most miles driving at low speeds in a sane manner.

During our time with the Beetle Convertible, we noticed that the brakes were strong and had a progressive pedal feel.  The Turbo’s brakes are slightly larger than the TDI’s and base car’s, but all three felt about the same.  All three models also seemed to bite fairly aggressively early in the pedal’s travel.  Depending on your perspective, this can either give you confidence or inhibit smoothness.  It’s probably more of a good thing than bad, since after a few miles, it’s easy to calibrate your right foot to the Beetle’s brake pedal.

Pricing starts at $24,995, plus a $795 destination charge.  Included in that tariff is air conditioning, automatic transmission, fully automatic top, and more.  The Turbo and TDI models start at $27,995 with the six-speed manual.  Adding the DSG dual clutch transaxle adds $1,100 to the Turbo and TDI prices (and don’t forget the destination charge).  Pricing tops out at $32,995 for a turbo with the Fender audio, DSG, and navigation.  VW sees this car as a competitor to the Mustang, Camaro, and MINI Cooper convertibles.  Though the pricing of all three is similar, the VW is the cheapest, and (at least with the TDI model) the most efficient.  The Beetle Convertible TDI gets 41 MPG on the highway when equipped with the standard 6 speed manual, making it the most fuel-efficient convertible available in the U.S.

You can find Beetle Convertibles at your local VW dealer today.  (I just saw one yesterday, in fact).  If you’re looking for a fun-to-drive, fun-to-look-at car with better-than-expected practicality, you should seriously take this car for a spin.  It doesn’t drive like a Camaro, but depending on your point of view, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In the 2013 Beetle Convertible, VW has created a worthy successor to the name and heritage that stretches back more than five decades.

Volkswagen flew me to Los Angeles, put me up in a nice hotel in Santa Monica, paid for two dinners, one breakfast, and one lunch, provided all of the Beetle Convertibles I could possibly want to drive in order for me to write this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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