This car—a Beetle Convertible TDI, Toffee Brown Metallic over Beige Leatherette, $29,790 without satnav—is a rolling bundle of contradictions. For starters, in the US diesel engines are usually found in hard-working trucks or long-range highway cruisers, but here’s one in a subcompact car. Furthermore, the words “diesel” and “sport” rarely appear in the same sentence unless there’s a negative inbetween (as in “not sporting”), but this diesel powertrain has a sport-car transmission with shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
We expect the engine to be in the rear, but it’s up front, and there is a real, if small, trunk. We expect two seats and get four. Old-timers may think it’s still rear-wheel-drive and air-cooled, but this Beetle’s front wheels do the work and there is a radiator. For its size, the car is as aerodynamic as the proverbial masonry seat-of-ease, but it gets hybrid-class miles per gallon. The one-piece body has had its top sawed off, yet it doesn’t groan or flex over bumps (which is more than can be said for VW’s purpose-built convertible, the Eos).
And finally, original 20th Century beetles were the cheapest of cars—the volkswagen, people’s car—but this is a 2013 capital-B Beetle that bears no mechanical or even cultural resemblance whatever to the VW Type 1, born in 1938.
Maybe the oddest thing about this car, however, is that its contradictions mesh amazingly well—and what we might expect to be its Achilles’ heel, the diesel motor, is part of what makes this particular Beetle so competent. Oh, and that hefty price? Good value.
This new 4-cylinder, 2-liter turbo-diesel TDI engine makes only 140 horsepower, but 236 pounds-feet of torque at barely more than idle speed. It’s hooked up to a slick 6-speed DSG transmission that can shift itself automatically, but has real gears. The 210HP gasoline Beetle Turbo accelerates harder, but this TDI is not slow, and the bountiful torque feels good underfoot.
It feels good at the pump too. We couldn’t push the fuelage figure below 37 MPG (at an overall average speed of 32 MPH) and on the highway, with the top up, we got something like 45 miles per gallon. Both numbers far exceed the car’s EPA-DOT forecasts.
In town, everyone was surprised: “That’s a diesel? It’s so quiet!” No vibration or harshness appears inside, either, nor is there any trace of smoke from the tailpipe. Nearly every European car that arrives here with a gas engine—BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Volvo, Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz or VW—is available over there with a civilized diesel that produces a bump-up in fuel efficiency of at least 10 and sometimes 20-plus miles per gallon. (Diesel cars are going mainstream here now; Chevrolet is launching one.)
The Beetle Convertible’s multi-layer fabric top goes up and down at the push/pull of a switch, but the tonneau cover has to be snapped in place by hand—or just left off. A wind-block screen can be added behind the front seats, but it covers the back seats and it isn’t necessary; even on the highway, the slipstream won’t take your hat. At the car wash, not a drop of water made it into the cabin, despite the lack of side-window frames.
When VW created this next generation of its reborn-in-1997 icon, the word “New” was dropped from the name, so now this is just the Beetle. But it really is new—longer, lower, wider and sleeker than its immediate predecessor, and more luxurious. This top-of-the-range version almost meets Audi standards for fit, finish and feel, and for comfort too. The passenger-in-chief announced, “The more I ride in this car, the more I like it.”
So this isn’t Bill Hefner’s Volkswagen beetle, not even close. In 1967, when we were in high school, he let me drive it. It was awesome. Compared to my parents’ cars (an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 station wagon and a Rambler American sedan), it jinked around like a playful puppy and it could be driven flat-out without dire consequences. It showed me that driving can be fun, a sport, an end in itself.
Today that’s the Fiat 500, a car that every teenager should be allowed to drive at least once. Meanwhile, at VW, the headaches, flaws and shortcomings of every previous beetle are—like the bud vase—gone, along with any water-spider skittishness. Das Beetle has grown up.