Forget what the TV commercials say about the inherent strength of the arch. The radically curvilinear roofline of Volkswagen's New Beetle didn't make any particular sense when it was introduced in 1998, and it still doesn't, beyond the fact that, stylistically, it tracks the original Beetle while providing all the front-seat headroom a couple of pituitary giants partial to top hats could ever ask for. So less is the pity that VW takes the New Beetle roof and hacks it off to make the 2003 New Beetle convertible. With roof up, its shape closely reflects the classic Beetle form. Top down, it looks even better--as handsome, competent, and well finished a four-seat convertible as we can think of at the price, a comparatively modest $20,450. Thanks to clever German engineering, it's a perfectly acceptable daily-driving substitute for a hardtop.
Surprisingly, given the anticipation awaiting the New Beetle convertible, VW only ever sold 331,000 of its original Beetle convertibles between 1949 and 1980, a minute fraction of total old Beetle production (closing in on 22 million) and half as many as the lately departed Golf Cabrio notched in fewer years. But the Beetle convertible has a special emotional resonance to anyone older than thirty. And the New Beetle convertible, late to market though it may seem, turns out, like its metal-roofed relation, to be quite a good car. Which is why VW says it hopes to sell 30,000 in the United States alone this year. (That's a 50 percent spike in New Beetle sales.)
Performance? First, the good news: The New Beetle has good throttle tip-in. Setting off from traffic lights, it feels quick. Now the bad news: It isn't. Available initially only with VW's long-serving 2.0-liter four and its humble allotment of 115 horsepower, it runs out of huff well before it reaches its 6000 rpm limit, whether the five-speed manual or a new six-speed automatic is specified. With 3000 pounds to lug around, performance borders on the canine. Bring on the upcoming 150-horsepower turbocharged version, and we will be left to reflect only on the excellence of the New Beetle's conversion to convertible living.
Thanks to heavily reinforced A- and B-pillars, floors, doors, steering column, and rear cross-members--joined for rollover safety's sake by a pair of automatically deployed roll bars hidden in the rear seats' head rests--cowl shake was nonexistent on our drive over admittedly smooth pavement. The convertible's safe, if stodgy, handling parameters will be familiar to all modern VW drivers. The interior, too, is typical VW, with high-quality materials predominant, even if others are catching up with Volkswagen's once class-leading take on dash plastic. And speaking of dashes, one is reminded that the New Beetle has one of the deepest ones going, with a large windshield almost impossibly distant from the driver. It works even better in the convertible, with all that cubic nostril room giving a sense of true open-airness while somehow minimizing buffeting. That's especially true with the optional collapsible wind deflector that can be fitted when rear-seat passengers are not aboard.
Traveling with the top down at 80 mph, way faster than old VWs could even go, is not a problem. And lowering the fully lined, quiet roof was never so easy; just twist a handle and hit a button (with the optional electrohydraulic fitment), and it lowers to lie flat above the deck lid, though not so obtrusively as its forebears. An easy-to-install vinyl boot covers the stack, beneath which resides a seven-cubic-foot trunk (with pass-through), which is just the right side of joke-sized.
This is a fine blend of modern attributes and nostalgia, amplified by a palette of pastel color choices that bring forward one of the best parts of the old cars: their gentle, nonmetallic hues. As cheap convertibles go, this one makes a lot of sense.