Maybe you know someone who as a kid longed so much for top-down, open-air motoring that she helped her older brother cut off the top of a '72 Plymouth Valiant sedan in their driveway. (Gosh, was mom ever mad.) Later, she started working at the local Chick-Fil-A at age fourteen so that she could eventually buy a down-at-the-heels '86 VW Cabriolet, a triple-white model known as "Cabbie" until it finally expired of old age while she was in college.
You'll want to tell her about the high-style Volkswagen Eos, a hardtop convertible that makes every girl a starlet, the centerpiece of her own fashion layout in Lucky. As the replacement for the Cabrio ragtop that disappeared from the VW lineup in 2003, the Eos won't actually arrive here until this fall as a 2007 model, but we recently had a chance to drive one extensively in-naturally-Southern California.
There's more to the Eos than just style, though. It's a useful, well-engineered automobile, so it makes fashion practical as well as fun. You'd expect nothing less, since it's derived from the new, fifth-generation Golf, which also comes this fall. When the Eos arrives, you'll have your choice of a 200-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four or a 250-hp version of the 3.2-liter, narrow-angle VR6.
VW engineers earned their pay here, because a car without a top has even less torsional rigidity than a freshly opened box of Steve Madden shoes. To give this particular topless box more structural integrity, the familiar targa hoop that braced the Cabrio's body shell between the B-pillars has been cleverly inverted for the Eos and then integrated into the pedestal for the rear seat. The Eos also has its safety act together, as the steel A-pillars are tied directly to the floorpan's stout frame rails. A rollover bar (powered by pyrotechnics, not a spring) deploys behind the rear seats in just 0.25 second if things go bad, while both front- and rear-seat passengers also get curtain-type air bags for head protection.
Webasto builds the hard top, a little miracle of Disney-like engineering that electrically retracts at the touch of a control lever in the center console. First, sensors integrated into the rear bumper ensure there's sixteen inches of clearance behind the car, and then the plastic deck lid tilts up and moves to the rear. The intricate, multipiece hard top automatically unlatches from the windshield header and then stacks up in the trunk like a Wendy's hamburger. A single electric motor and eight hydraulic rams accomplish all the monkey motion.
As a top-down environment, the interior is as calm as a spring day, and it gets almost balmy once you deploy the pop-up wind blocker integrated into the windshield header and then erect the detachable windscreen behind the front seats. It's also easy to take a seat, thanks to wide doors and a short, upright A-pillar that won't poke your eye out. And if you're carrying rear-seat passengers, a touch of a button returns the front seats into place electrically once your friends are loaded.
We drove an Eos with the direct-injection 2.0-liter turbo, which was as smooth and tractable as ever, although its tiresome exhaust growl proved even more noticeable during top-down driving. For packaging reasons, the suspension bits are derived from the Passat rather than the Golf, giving the Eos slightly wider front and rear tracks than the Audi A4 convertible and helping it steer through corners with precision and stability. The multilink, independent rear suspension also delivers great ride quality. The hard top might weigh 154 pounds, but it doesn't seem to produce any handling eccentricities, despite the way it changes the car's center of gravity when it's stowed in the trunk.
Like the VW Cabrio, the Eos is always practical. When the hard top is up, it seals out the weather and delivers a measure of security when you park at the beach or at a dance club, while a transparent, sliding/tilt-up sunroof gives you a window to the weather. With the top down, there's still room for a medium-size suitcase in the trunk. The only thing the Eos really lacks is an adventuresome look, as its proportions are slightly off-kilter, an affliction common to small, hardtop convertibles.
The Eos will be equipped as a fully optioned car, and it'll have a fully optioned price, just south of $30,000. But if VW wants this car to find its customary audience among drivers who know more about style than anyone else in the automotive marketplace, the company will have to realize that these people are expert consumers of brand-name goods who expect durability, quality, and reliability as part of such a pricey package. Quality continues to be VW's biggest challenge, and the choice of an assembly plant in Portugal for the Eos suggests there might be some challenges ahead for this car. Fortunately, Wolfgang Bernhard, the VW division's president, has staked his reputation on a 50 percent reduction in warranty costs for the VW line in the near future, so the outlook for improved quality seems bright.
In the meantime, the Eos is the model of what every convertible should be. It embraces the exhilarating rush of the wind and the opportunity to express enthusiasm for life and your place in it.