CALL ME A CAB
Volkswagen's third take on the Beetle theme is bigger and more comfortable than ever and might just be at its best with a roof that folds back. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Let's face it, you don't buy a Volkswagen Beetle if practicality is at the top of your agenda, so why not go the whole hog and opt for a soft top? The third generation Beetle Cabriolet is strong on style and looks a really great ownership proposition. It's everything its predecessor needed to be.
Oscar Wilde tells us that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. And if you're amongst those who've always promised themselves a modern, affordable yet nostalgically styled new convertible, then what you might well be thinking of yielding to is something like this, the third generation Beetle Cabriolet.
Bigger, better equipped, with superior engineware and much-improved quality, this car arrived in the Spring of 2013 and has proved to be a definite step upmarket, even though it still remains the most affordable route into Volkswagen soft-top ownership. It's also rather unique in the affordable drop-top segment, offering the kind of character you simply don't get in soft-top versions of ordinary family hatchbacks, the kind of rear seat space you'd never find in a convertible MINI and the sort of proper 'wind-in-the-hair' experience that can't be fully replicated by cars like the Fiat 500C and the Citroen DS3 Cabrio that aren't fully-fledged convertibles.
A new kind of nostalgia then - in a new kind of Beetle. Let's put it to the test.
Let's start with the roof, a beautifully tailored multi-layered piece of heavy duty fabric that at the press of a button rises up in 11 seconds, folds away in 9.5s and is operable at speeds of up to 31mph. That's in contrast to the similar soft-top fitted to the Golf Cabriolet that requires you to slow right down to 18mph before the electrics will work. Like all proper convertibles, you'll find it a bit blustery when driving al fresco unless you put the windows up, but with the optional wind deflector in place across the rear seats, things improve considerably.
As for engines, well they're all borrowed from the older MK6 model Golf - so in other words, a couple of generations more modern than those supplied in the previous generation version of this car. There's decent power on offer for those who really want it - a 200PS 2.0-litre TSI petrol unit from the old Golf GTI that makes 62mph in 7.6s on the way to 139mph. Or you could go for a 140PS 2.0TDI diesel that manages 9.9s and 122mph. I'm not sure though, that I'd bother with either: this isn't the kind of car that's really at its best driving at those kinds of speeds.
Which leaves us with the variants that'll account for almost all UK sales. The two main versions - an eager 1.2-litre TSI petrol and a 1.6-litre TDI diesel - both develop 105PS and make 62mph in around 12s en route to 111mph. If you've a little more in the budget though and wouldn't mind a little extra punch, then don't ignore the 160PS 1.4-litre TSI petrol unit, which manages 8.6s and 128mph and could very well be the prime pick in the range.
Design and Build
Styling-wise, there's something of the past, artfully mixed with a sporty vision of the future in a car that's longer, lower and wider than its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase. It's also an awful lot stiffer, thanks to copious body strengthening across the floor and thicker A-pillars, which is why it won't judder about so much over the bumps. Most small soft-tops need vibration dampers to try and take care of that but this Beetle doesn't need them.
One of the advantages of the way the fabric roof sits proud of the passenger compartment just above the integral rear spoiler is that it doesn't take up bootspace, which is pretty reasonable for this class of car at 225-litres, 24-litres more than the previous model, enough (if you can negotiate the narrow loading bay) for a couple of small suitcases and about double what you'd get in an open-top Fiat 500 or MINI. If that's not enough, you can fold down the rear seatbacks using two neat levers, freeing up a lot more space.
That's assuming you're not using the back seats of course. Unlike many of its rivals in the small convertible sector, this car has a big enough cabin to comfortably take four adults - for short to medium journeys anyway, provided the occupants aren't excessively tall. Those that are will appreciate a design that's freed up 12mm more headroom than was offered in this car's predecessor.
Market and Model
Compared to what you'd pay for a fixed-top Beetle, there's a model-for-model premium of just under £3,000 to find for this soft-top version, leading to pricing mainly pitched in the £19,000 to £26,000 bracket. All of which makes this is the most affordable of the three compact convertible models that Volkswagen now offers, despite the fact that it's made all the way across the Atlantic in Mexico. A Golf Cabriolet with the same engine would cost you an extra £2,000-£3,000 - or maybe even more, depending on the model you're looking at. The pokier engines at the top of the Beetle Cabriolet range are also shared with Volkswagen's Eos, but that car has a metal folding roof rather than a soft-top, which accounts for its model-for-model premium of around £4,000.
If, having considered all of this, you conclude that it is a Beetle Cabriolet that you really, really want, then whichever engine you settle upon - 1.2, 1.4 or 2.0-litre TSI petrol or 1.6 or 2.0 TDI diesel - you're going to want a decent level of standard equipment to be fitted before you get into the inevitable realms of personalisation. And, by and large, you should be reasonably happy with what's on offer. Apart from the electric hood and tonneau cover that's part and parcel of the Beetle Cabriolet package, all models get a rear spoiler, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning that also cools the glovebox, a trip computer, a decent quality iPod-compatible eight-speaker stereo with an aux-in socket and digital radio, plus a hill holder clutch to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions. The two top petrol engines also get the XDS differential lock system that improves handling through fast bends.
Cost of Ownership
If running costs are a key concern, then you'll naturally gravitate towards the 1.6-litre TDI diesel 'BlueMotion Technology' Cabriolet variant. Thanks to a Stop/Start system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck at the lights or waiting in traffic, this model is able to return 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and put out 118g/km of CO2. And to put that in perspective? Well, it's some way off the standards set by a smaller rival MINI Convertible Cooper D but potential Beetle owners will be looking at pretty much the same kind of returns as they'd get from a base diesel Golf Cabriolet or Renault Megane CC and they'll be doing about 10% better than they would be in a rival Peugeot 308CC 1.6 e-HDi.
Elsewhere in the Beetle Cabriolet range, the story's very similar. Yes, you can get lower running costs from a smaller soft top like a MINI or a Fiat 500C but if your search is centring on affordable convertible that can actually take four people and more than a token amount of luggage, then you'll find that this Volkswagen's returns are pretty par for the course. Choose, for example, for the larger capacity 2.0 TDI 140 diesel and you're looking at 55.4mpg on the combined cycle and 134g/km of CO2, a fraction ahead of a comparable Peugeot 308CC 2.0 HDi and a fraction behind a rival BMW 118d convertible. Opt for this top diesel Beetle with a 6-speed DSG auto gearbox and your returns will be hit by about 10%.
Like the idea of a Beetle Cabriolet? Then you like this one very much indeed. If you don't, then nothing your local Volkswagen sales person will say about the more efficient engines, the better driving experience and the extra bootspace is likely to convince you. Retro design is like that - which is why Volkswagen also offers a soft-top Golf for those who can't really see the point. That's arguably a more sensible choice, but then who ever bought a small convertible for sensible reasons?
A car like this is - and should be - an indulgence, a bit of fun. Exactly like soft-top Beetles always have been. And, after years of being viewed as a novelty car whose appeal had long worn off, this Volkswagen's back as a hot ticket in this segment. Will that last? Who knows? MINI has shown that retro styling can have durable appeal and this Beetle Cabriolet seems to have embraced its heritage a lot more cleverly than its predecessor. Perhaps the best part about this Bug though, is that even if the novelty does wear off, you're left with a very good car. And that's a very welcome Plan B.