by Jim Kenzie
Miami Beach, Florida – In that TV cop show which was set down here, actor
Don Johnson always sported a stubble-beard – more 11 p.m. shadow than five
o’clock shadow. Did you ever wonder just how he did that? Did he shave in the morning and sit in the make-up trailer for twelve hours before rolling tape? I actually heard that he had a special razor, designed to give him a deliberately bad shave. It was called the “Miami Device”…
That show was partially responsible for us being in this hot, humid hell-hole for the world-wide launch of Volkswagen’s New Beetle Convertible – for the Germans, Miami Beach is one of those iconic American images, along with the Texas “Marlboro Man” cowboy thing, The Big Apple, and maybe Los Angeles and the Beach Boys.
So previewing a fun, hot-weather car here made perfect sense to them, never mind that there are approximately zero interesting roads within a thousand miles of this place.
From the moment the New Beetle coupe was introduced in Detroit in 1998, speculation about a convertible ran wild. Some California chop-shops had home-made (and usually quite awful) jobs on the roads moments after the car became available. VW itself showed a drop-top concept car a couple of years ago.
But it took longer than maybe VW wanted, and certainly than New Beetle fans
wanted, to get the real thing into production. VW’s story? They wanted to make sure it was right, not only in technical matters (top water-tight; up-and-down mechanism simple; body rigidity acceptable; safety and legal considerations taken care of), but also to make sure it looked right.
The original Beetle convertible was an iconic car in its own time, and presented a unique look to the world, especially in profile. Still, most fans of retro-cars like the Beetle (or the Mini) have never owned an original. And kids who may have never seen one apart from TV shows and cartoons, all seem to love this shape.
So VW’s chief designer Peter Schreyer had his work cut out for him. He succeeded, aided, if perhaps constrained, by this “similarity” requirement. One advantage he had: no other convertible in today’s world could get away with the folded top stacked brazenly atop the rear sill of the car – we’ve come to expect them to fold entirely out of sight.
This was clearly impossible with the New Beetle, unless they eliminated the
back seat altogether, which was a non-starter. And the new Beetle’s trunk was already too small – they had no room they could steal from there anyway. The resulting odd roof-down profile is reminiscent of the original Beetle Convertible, and the roof-up shape is like the New Beetle Coupe, so it’s all OK.
Judging from the “thumbs-up’s”, waves, and “nice car’s!” we got while driving around the trendy South Beach area, the New Beetle Convertible’s shape is OK with prospective buyers too.
The triple-layer top folds in Z-like fashion, three sections collapsing upon themselves, so the “stack” isn’t quite as high as on the original. Still, visibility to the rear isn’t great.
Manual operation will be standard; an electro-hydraulic system which completes the up or down move in 13 seconds, will surely be a popular option.
A cover can be fitted over the folded top for a more finished look, and to help protect the inner mechanism. It is one of the easiest of its type to fit and remove, but isn’t really necessary – you’ll leave this in the garage to gain a wee bit more cargo room.
The rear window is glass, and is electrically heated.
Safety is always a concern with convertibles; the New Beetle Convertible has a pair of spring-loaded roll hoops which pop up in a quarter-second should sensors in the car determine that a roll-over might be imminent. Front in-dash and side-frontal air bags, plus extra cushioning in the door sides, provide additional protection. Reinforcements in the A- and B-pillars and the floor benefit both
crashworthiness and rigidity.
Initially, only the ancient 2.0 litre single-cam, eight-valve four cylinder 115 horsepower gasoline engine will be offered in the new Beetle Convertible. The 150-horse 1.8 litre Turbo will join the team in about six months.
Europeans – lucky guys – get a TDi Diesel engine option too; no word as to when or if we’ll get that one, nor the 180-horse/six-speed manual power train, currently available in the New Beetle Coupe. And is it to much to hope for the VR6?
A five-speed manual transmission is base fitment. A six-speed automatic, rare anywhere but unheard of in this class, complete with Tiptronic which allows you to manually select gears, is the option.
The interior of the Convertible is pretty much as in the Coupe, apart from the obvious roof-moving switch. (My test car also had a six-CD changer in the centre console where a cubby bin used to be.)
As in the Coupe, then, you get massive room in front, not very much in the back. And because the windshield is so far forward, you get the impression you’re sitting, well, back in the car. No worries about striking your forehead on the windshield header rail in this puppy.
Another upside is that you really feel out in the open air in this car. The
downside – the sub visors are so far away that when you pivot them to block sun coming from the side, they are totally useless.
An optional black mesh net “wind blocker” can be fitted over the rear seat
to reduce back drafts in the cabin; it really works. If you like wind in your hair, and/or need to carry more than one additional rider, the wind blocker can be folded into quarters and stuffed into the trunk; if you’ve also got that tonneau cover in there, that’d be about it – total capacity is only 7 cubic feet.
Best think of the Beetle Convertible as a cruising car for two, and put
your gear in the back seat under that wind blocker. You shouldn’t be in a great hurry when driving a “m’as-tu vu?” car – you want the unfortunate peasants to get a good look at how cool you are.
No worries on this score – the factory-supplied 0 – 100 km/h sprint time of
11.7 seconds seems, if you can believe it, optimistic. And with the automatic transmission, forward progress is leisurely indeed. The transmission also occasionally muffs a shift, leaving a rather harsh thump. Still, I’d probably opt for the slushbox. You’re not in this for sports-car-like driving enjoyment – you’re profiling, dude…
Cowl shake is minimal on this car, and ride quality is fine.
The New Beetle Convertible makes its formal public debut at next January’s
Detroit Auto Show, and will go on sale in the first quarter of 2003. Prices
will start at $29,250 for a base GL-spec manual-transmission car with
manual roof. (Unlike the initial price of the Coupe, this is not substantially cheaper than the US price after the exchange rate is factored in.)
Volkswagen has sold over half a million New Beetles world-wide since its
inception – not bad at all for a so-called “niche” car. VW knew full-well that the initial euphoria wouldn’t last, and it hasn’t – sales have slumped in the last couple of years.
Their hope is that the Convertible model will invigorate not only the New
Beetle sub-brand, but all VW products in general.