Full 2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Review
What's New for 2003
Volkswagen makes the TDI and 150-horsepower 1.8T engines available on the base GL trim level. All GLs now come with power windows and cruise control, and the GL 1.8T and all GLS models get alloy wheels. Stability control (ESP), heated seats, and the Monsoon sound system will be available across the line. All models except the GL get a standard sunroof and a larger center console container, and the GL and GLS have new cloth upholstery. Note that last year's Sport model has been discontinued. All models have a more comfortable rear seat, a clock/temperature display on the rearview mirror and turn signals mounted on the outside mirrors. Finally, if you've been holding out for a Beetle convertible since 1998, your wait is almost over -- the first drop tops should arrive at the dealers just in time for, well, winter. The first ones will be 2.0 GL and GLS models in February 2003, 1.8T-equipped GLS and GLX models later in the spring.
When the Golf-based Volkswagen New Beetle debuted, America went bonkers over it. It was cute. It was retro. It reminded people of their youth, free love and smoking lots of, well, you know. But that was five years ago. Just like Saint Bernard puppies, cars grow old. And unless something is done to keep the interest up, the buying public's fascination wears off. Indeed, New Beetle sales have cooled considerably since 1998. Last year, Volkswagen energized the lineup with the introduction of the Turbo S. Building off the GLX 1.8T model, the Turbo S has a more powerful engine, a more aggressive-looking body and unique interior treatments. Indeed, the Turbo S is the most powerful and sporting New Beetle ever offered in the United States. Accordingly, it's also the most expensive. The New Beetle is entering its sixth season for 2003. At this point, many small cars get a full makeover. Instead, VW will rely on the Beetle's large array of standard features, premium cabin furnishings and playful on-road demeanor to keep the nameplate competitive. The availability of the TDI and 1.8T engines at the base GL trim level should make the car more appealing to shoppers who prize value above image. More importantly, the long-awaited convertible version will finally make its appearance midway through the model year with such features as a power-folding cloth top, a rollover protection system and, a first in the price range, a six-speed automatic transmission.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
For 2003, the available trim levels include the GL, GLS, GLX and Turbo S. The GL comes with air conditioning; cassette stereo; four-wheel antilock disc brakes; side airbags; 16-inch wheels; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; seat-height adjusters; a telescoping steering wheel and a bud vase on the dash. Options include stability control (ESP), a premium Monsoon sound system, heated front seats and a dealer-installed CD changer. The GLS adds a sunroof, a center armrest with storage, alloy wheels (also available on the GL 1.8T) and foglights. Besides all the GL options, you can get leather or a trim package with sport seats and interior accents that match the exterior paint (GLS 1.8T buyers can also get 17-inch wheels). Step up to the GLX and leather, Monsoon sound, rain-sensing wipers and a self-dimming rearview mirror are included; ESP and 17-inch wheels are optional. The Turbo S adds standard 17s, a sport-tuned suspension, metallic-colored trim, distinctive body add-ons and a rear spoiler that deploys at 45 mph. Convertibles will be offered in GL, GLS, and GLX trim; the first ones to arrive will be GLS models. A power-folding cloth top will be available.
Powertrains and Performance
GL and GLS buyers can choose one of three engines. First up is a 115-horsepower, ULEV-certified 2.0-liter inline four. More interesting is the 1.9-liter diesel four (called TDI) that gets up to 49 mpg on the highway (and makes an impressive 155 pound-feet of torque) or the powerful 150-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged four (called the 1.8T). All of these engines have adequate power for easy city driving, though the 1.8T is the most fun, and it provides fuel economy on par with the base 2.0-liter -- it's standard on the GLX. A five-speed manual and four-speed automatic are available at all trim levels. The performance-oriented Turbo S comes only with a 180-hp version of the 1.8T paired with a six-speed manual. New Beetle Convertibles will be available with the 2.0-liter and the 150-hp 1.8T and either a five-speed manual or a segment-first six-speed automatic.
Side airbags are standard, but unlike its Golf platform mate, the Beetle doesn't offer head curtain airbags -- which may account for its three-star rating in NHTSA's rear side-impact category. Otherwise, the Beetle is a model of safety, having earned five stars in both frontal impact categories and a "Good" rating (and "Best Pick" status) from the IIHS for the offset crash. Convertibles will have a rollover protection system.
Interior Design and Special Features
Though smaller inside than the Golf, the Beetle (seats four, 12 cubic feet of hatch space) compensates with style: its tablelike dashboard, huge circular speedometer and round vents distinguish it from everything else on the road. Cabin materials are high in quality.
Like other VWs, the Beetle is fun to drive but comfortable for long trips. The Turbo S has a slightly stiffer suspension -- it's still too soft for performance freaks, but just about right for most drivers.