New Car Review: 2004 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible GLS 1.8T


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2004 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible GLS 1.8T

What could be better for summertime top-down driving than a Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible? And add bonus points for the Turbo version. With 150 horsepower and a slick, manually-shiftable six-speed automatic transmission, the New Beetle Convertible GLS 1.8T not only looks sporty, it is sporty.

Introduced for the 2003 model year, with the turbo engine available last summer, the droptop Beetle has proved popular if the roads in my part of the world are any indication. It continues a VW fun-in-the-sun tradition that started with the original Beetle convertible, built from 1949 to 1980, and continued through the Rabbit and Golf cabrios.

Beetlemania made a comeback, big time, when the New Beetle debuted in mid-1997. I attended the world press launch, at which time journalists - myself included - were stopped by people running out in the middle of the road pleading for a close look. It was pandemonium. But, as evidenced by the quick rise and demise of some onetime must-have retromobiles, nostalgia only plays for so long, and while there is more than a touch of nostalgia in the New Beetle, it is a completely contemporary car. Don't look for an air-cooled engine in the rear; the New Beetle is built on the same front-engine, front-wheel drive platform as the VW Golf. With a well-insulated three-layer power-operated top, the Convertible doesn't have to be kept in the garage when the weather turns foul.

The Beetle ragtop has a few changes for its sophomore year. It's still offered in GL and GLS trim, and both have some new color choices. Front seat-mounted head and thorax side impact bags and active front head restraints are standard on all models, while a10-speaker Monsoon(r) sound system is standard in the GLS.

My test week with the Convertible was standard summer fare where I live - everything from 100-plus degree heat to cold, foggy nights. Top-up or top-down, VW's latest open-air conveyance handled it all, and brought smiles to more than my face as well. Beetlemania is not dead yet.

APPEARANCE: Is there anyone in this country who is not familiar with the New Beetle at this late date? Descended with few changes from a mid-90s concept car, it playfully updates the classic Volkswagen sedan, a 1930s design that survived in production until very recently. The New Beetle Convertible shares the sedan's sheetmetal from the windshield forward, and is subtly distinct from that point back. With the top up, the roofline is nearly identical to that of the regular New Beetle. With the top down, it has a jaunty look - and great visibility, as the top goes further down than did the Golf Cabrio's. A chrome accent strip around the passenger cabin is a classy touch. GLS Turbo models can be told by the ``Turbo'' script on the trunk lid.

COMFORT: With its fully-insulated three-layer top, the New Beetle Convertible is an all-season car. In the GLS, the top is power-operated, needing only manual latching or unlatching. It goes down or up quickly, in just 13 seconds, and features a heated glass rear window. Visibility is on a par with an old Beetle with the top up, and excellent with it down. I had my test car in miserably high temperatures, and, since heat stroke is not on my list of favorite experiences, kept the top up and the AC on in those conditions. That made for a pleasantly cool, quiet experience. When the temperature dropped, so did the top. Wind was never excessive, especially with the wind blocker in place. The Convertible's interior design is basically that of the New Beetle sedan, with the long dash, retro-round instrument cluster, and bud vase. Windows are power-operated, with a convenient master switch that allows the driver to raise or lower all with one touch. There is seating for four, with wonderfully-comfortable manually-adjustable front buckets and a contoured rear bench. Headroom is excellent, a Beetle characteristic going all the way back to the original. In the rear, legroom is tight for anyone over medium height, but even with the top up, the sky is the limit for headroom. As with the sedan, trunk space, while useful and certainly larger than a two-seat convertible, is less than in a Golf.

SAFETY: The New Beetle Convertible has standard dual-range front airbags and side-impact airbags. ``Automatic Rollover Supports''(tm) behind the seats deploy when electronic sensors detect the possibility of a rollover. Reinforced windshield pillars provide further protection. In addition to four-wheel antilock disc brakes, the ESP electronic stabilization program, electronic differential locks, and automatic slip regulation (traction control) are standard on the GLS 1.8T.

ROADABILITY: Although the New Beetle Convertible is primarily a car in which to see and be seen, it has a high fun-to-drive factor, too. Like the Beetle sedan, it's based on Volkswagen's Golf platform, and the Golf and GTI have well-known handling abilities. The unibody structure has been reinforced to partially make up for the loss of rigidity due to the removal of the hard top, and the MacPherson strut front, torsion beam axle rear suspension is tuned firmly enough for nimble handling and softly enough for comfort. Beetles are smile machines, and this one is no different.

PERFORMANCE: The base-model GL and GLS 2.0-liter four-cylinder's 115 horsepower and 125 lb-ft or torque are adequate for daily operation, but the extra boost of the turbo's 150 horses and 162 lb-ft can't be denied. The engine is an unusual five valve per cylinder design used in other VW and Audi products, and gives strong performance with commendable fuel economy. A five-speed manual is standard, with, most unusually for its price segment, a six-speed automatic with ``Tiptronic''(r) manual mode available. The engine's flat torque curve - maximum torque is produced from 2200 through 4200 rpm - makes the automatic an excellent match. Because of the six speeds, revs and acceleration don't drop much when shifting up, and shifting, manually or automatically, is quick and smooth. The New Beetle Turbo Convertible is quick enough to be fun, if no rocketship, and fuel economy, at around 24 mpg average, is at least as good as the old Beetle I had many years ago.

CONCLUSIONS: There is more that just fun in the sun with Volkswagen's New Beetle Convertible.

SPECIFICATIONS

2004 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible GLS 1.8T

Base Price			$ 25,995
Price As Tested		$ 28,720
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 20-valve turbocharged 
				  inline four-cylinder
Engine Size			1.8 liters / 109 cu. in.
Horsepower			150 @ 5800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			162 @ 2200-4200 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with ``Tiptronic''(r)
				  manual shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		98.8 in. / 161.1 in.
Curb Weight			3217 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		21.5
Fuel Capacity			14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91-octane unleaded premium recommended
				  for best performance
Tires				225/45 HR17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A (opt)
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ESP and 
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  semi-independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			Front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		22 / 29 / 24
0 to 60 mph				9.6  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Cold Weather Package - includes:
  heated front seats, leather seating surfaces, leather
  steering wheel, shift knob, and hand brake		$ 900
HID Xenon headlights					$ 600
17-inch alloy wheels					$ 400
Wind Blocker						$ 250
Destination Charge					$ 575

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