The squashed-roof, 2012 Volkswagen Beetle that went on sale in September 2011 proved VW could bring both Golf-level driving dynamics and more masculine lines to a car that had been known more for its bud vase and other girly features than for pleasing enthusiasts. On the day before the 2013 Beetle convertible debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the question on our minds as we set off from the Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, heading up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, was: "Can VW chop off its roof and still appeal to men?" After all, four-seat, brightly colored ragtops don't exactly engender images of Vin Diesel, do they? What we have here is a car that was redesigned specifically for men, transformed into a convertible, an automotive body style that is inherently more appealing to women. Can Volkswagen have it both ways?
It appears that the company might just be able to pull off this product-planning parlor trick. In the right colors -- black, dark brown, even red -- the 2013 Beetle convertible wears its harder, more chiseled exterior lines well, and the roofline with the top in place connotes seriousness more than frivolity. Heck, if anything, the cabin is a little too somber, unless you choose a model with color-matching dash inserts, like in the red TDI we drove. We don't miss the bud vase, but the black roofs on our test cars imbued the cabin with a slightly funereal atmosphere.
We definitely don't miss the old Beetle convertible's flaccid body and chassis. The new car's body is some 20 percent stiffer, thanks to copious use of high-strength steel in the windshield pillars and other key stress points in the car's structure. There's no evidence of cowl flex, and the steering column seems to be as well screwed down as in a Golf, which makes sense since the Beetle is built on the Golf platform. Compared with the 2006 New Beetle convertible, the 2013 model is 3.3 inches wider and six inches longer but is 1.1 inch lower overall. When the fabric top is up, the roofline is even lower than it is in the new Beetle coupe, in a nod to the 1949 Type 15, Volkswagen's first civilian convertible. The resulting exterior proportions create a solid, squat street stance that helps the Beetle look a little more serious.
The convertible shares its three powertrains with the Beetle coupe, so that means the entry price of $24,995 gets you VW's 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed torque-converter automatic. There's nothing wrong with this powertrain, but there's nothing remotely inspiring about it, either. If you want to shift for yourself, you'll have to step up to the diesel TDI model at $27,895 or the Beetle Turbo for a hundred bucks less. (It's amusing that their base prices are so close to each other.) Both the Turbo and the TDI are also available with VW's DSG dual-clutch automatic, for a premium of $1100, but it seems that the TDI with the manual is going to be the hot ticket for a certain slice of VW enthusiasts, as it takes the EPA highway number over the magical 40-mpg barrier, for ratings of 28 city, 41 highway. It, like all VW TDI models, is great to drive. Still, enthusiasts will likely be most interested in the 200-hp Turbo, which is the closest thing to a ragtop GTI as you're going to get, at least for now. The Turbo also has bigger front brakes (with red calipers), stiffer bump and rebound settings for its dampers, and a slightly larger front anti-roll bar than the other models, plus 235/45R-18 tires rather than the 215/55R-17s that are on the 2.5L and the TDI. What all three models have, due to packaging reasons, is a fully independent suspension, with a multi-link rear setup, whereas only the Turbo among Beetle coupes has an independent rear.
Part of that rear packaging solution accommodates the new automatic rollover support system, with pop-up roll bars behind the rear seatbacks. VW has also managed to introduce a split-folding rear seatback with a trunk pass-through. The trunk itself has a rather pinched opening but now measures 7.1 cubic feet versus only 5.0 cubic feet in the old car. A dealer-option wind-blocker can be mounted out of the way in the top of the trunk compartment when it's not spanning the rear seats.
As before, the fabric roof folds into a pile on top of the rear portion of the car, but it's not a visual barrier in your rear-view mirror. The three-layer top is a typically well-designed piece of German engineering and effectively seals out noise. Hit a button at the windshield header and the top will lower in only 9.5 seconds or rise back into place in only 11 seconds, at speeds of up to 31 mph. Very cool, and one of the primary benefits of a power top that's not hidden under a hard tonneau. With all four windows raised, the wind blocker in place, and the three-level seat heaters on high, you can be quite comfortable on Pacific Coast Highway on a windy, 60-degree day, talk to your passenger, and listen to the optional Fender stereo. Yep, Fender, famous for its guitars and amplifiers, has engineered its first automotive audio application (beginning with the '12 Passat). There's even a special Fender Edition model for 2.5L and Turbo Beetles. (Click here for info on the '50s, '60s, and '70s Editions.)
The front seats fold forward easily to give access to the rear, and the seatbacks are scooped out to accommodate rear knees, so a five-foot, eleven-inch adult can sit pretty comfortably behind someone of similar stature for a short jaunt to the beach. No one other than kids will want to be back there for more than an hour or so but, hey, that's the case with most four-seat convertibles, and VW points out that there's half an inch additional rear headroom compared with the old car due to the elongated roof. We'll take every millimeter of it. Overall passenger volume has increased from 78 cubic feet to 81.4.
Top up, top down, this car is pretty fun to drive, with a supple ride and nicely communicative and reasonably precise steering. The brake pedal is a little soft on initial application but firms up through its travel. There's only a little bit of torque steer, mostly in the Turbo, and all three engines are well up to the job of propelling the vehicle, which weighs about 225 lb more than the coupe. (Curb weights range from 3206 lb to 3340 lb.) Still, there's plenty of room to add sportiness to the Beetle convertible, and Rainer Michel, VW's vice president of product marketing and strategy, readily admits that "the Beetle [is built on] a platform that you can do a lot with. We will have lots of versions, and we will keep our enthusiast audience happy." Michel doesn't offer any particulars, and we're not holding our breath for a Beetle R with serious performance modifications like the concept that debuted at the Geneva show last March. (The Beetle R-Line coupe that debuted at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show offers only styling tweaks.) But the Beetle convertible's suspension, steering, and brakes, while good, could all easily be sharpened, and a future variant of the Turbo thus tweaked could make a compelling poor man's -- or poor woman's -- Porsche Boxster.
2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible
Base prices: Beetle Convertible 2.5L, $24,995; Beetle TDI Convertible, $27,895; Beetle Turbo Convertible, $27,795
On sale: December 2012