2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Cabriolet First Drive

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

(2.0L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

When the New Beetle debuted in 1998, people — to phrase it eloquently — went nuts. Last sold in the U.S. in the late 1970s, the Beetle was an icon. Two decades later, VW saw fit to ride the retro wave and bring back the Bug. Of course, the water-cooled, front-engine, front-drive New Beetle shared just about nothing except its basic shape with the old air-cooled, rear-engine, rear-drive Beetle. But heritage be damned; dealers were getting over list price from folks drawn to the cute, modern-day interpretation of the old Bug. You couldn't help but smile when you first saw one. At more than 80,000 units, first-year sales far exceeded VW's expectations.

But although it was initially fun to look at and be seen in, the New Beetle really wasn't anything special under the skin. Initially, the Golf-based hatchback was only available with either the dated 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder or the 1.9-liter 90-horse turbodiesel four. Performance was not part of the New Beetle's personality. Then again, compared with the lethargic performance of the old 46-horse air-cooled Bug, the New Beetle was a veritable track star.

Soon the buzz of nostalgia wore off, and volks wondered why VW's sprightly 150-horse, 1.8-liter turbocharged four "1.8T" wasn't available in the New Beetle. And although VW still had the Golf-based Cabrio in its lineup, Beetle maniacs thought that there should be a convertible version of the New Beetle. Some hokey aftermarket firms answered the demand for a drop-top Bug, though it was obvious by the crudity of their executions that these were hacksaw jobs.

The following year VW realized that people might want more than charming looks in their Beetle, so it offered the 1.8T. And for 2002 the Turbo S came out, sporting a higher-output (180 horsepower) version of the 1.8T along with a six-speed manual transmission. This was great for those who lusted for more thrust, but the cries of "Where is the convertible?" got louder and louder.

Eventually, the shouts reached Wolfsburg. For 2003, a full five years after the Beetle's reincarnation, VW is bringing out a ragtop Beetle (which will essentially replace the Cabrio). With that much time to develop it, we expected a polished product and, for the most part, that's what was delivered. As it did with the hardtop, VW did a fantastic job capturing the essence of the original Beetle convertible with the new one. A tasteful chrome strip runs along the beltline, rising elegantly as it surrounds the top. And that rounded soft top preserves the arched roofline of the coupe.

Boasting 35-percent greater torsional stiffness than the outgoing Cabrio, the New Beetle convertible has a glass rear window and rollover protection in the form of reinforced pop-up rear headrests. The drop top will also have turn signals in the side mirror housings (a la Mercedes) and a new center console compartment/armrest that can house an optional six-disc CD changer. These last couple of features will also be added to the coupe for 2003.

But as it did with the New Beetle coupe, VW is initially teasing us by offering just the 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine in either GL or fancier GLS trim. Hello, guys, even a Toyota Echo benefits from four-valve-per-cylinder technology. Still, the old soldier received a few tweaks (that oddly won't be seen in the coupe application) such as balance shafts to smooth it out and a two-stage intake that doesn't increase output but provides a slightly broader power spread.

Later in the model year, the feisty 150-horse 1.8T will be available as either a GLS or GLX. As expected, the GL is the base version, though it's still well equipped with air conditioning; antilock brakes with discs all around; side-impact airbags; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; 10-speaker audio system with cassette player; tilt and telescopic steering wheel; and a rear-seat pass-through. Step up to the GLS and the top is powered (the GL has a "Jack Armstrong" arrangement) and foglights are fitted to the front fascia. The Johnny-come-lately GLX will top the line with leather seating, auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats and a Monsoon audio system. Naturally, we inquired about a Turbo S version and were told there were no plans for such an animal. And in a fit of nostalgia, this editor asked about a possible "Sun Bug" version, hearkening back to the gold-painted, sunroof-equipped Bug from the mid-1970s of the same name. This time, the suits said that anything's possible, so if a dipped-in-gold New Beetle ragtop appears in showrooms, you have us to thank…or maybe curse, if you're not into the "Gold" package idea.

Dropping the top is an easy three-step process: Grab the central header release handle and twist it to the left, push up the released top a few inches, hit the button and 13 seconds later the roof is down. Of course, you should then attach the boot to protect the top from dust — but don't worry, it's refreshingly easy. Instead of having a number of finger-busting snaps, the boot slips over the folded top and is secured with two easily latched clips. We didn't sample a GL so we can't comment on the operation of the manual top, but we would expect it to be hassle-free. The top is lined and when raised presents a smooth and snug appearance.

We sampled both manual and automatic versions of the GLS. The manual was typically VW, that is to say it had an accurate though somewhat rubbery feel through the gates along with a smooth clutch take-up. With the stir-'em-yourself gearbox, performance is adequate. But although the automatic is unique in its class for having six speeds, it can only do so much with 115 horses that are saddled with the 3,075 pounds of the convertible (about 260 pounds more than the coupe), making for mediocre acceleration. For the most part, the tranny swapped gears smoothly and would step down quickly. A few times, however, those downshifts were accompanied by a slight jolt. The Tiptronic mode was typical of most automanual gearboxes, meaning it didn't react as quickly as we'd bump the lever. Braking was solid and linear with a firm pedal.

If you're familiar with the Beetle coupe, then the handling of the convertible version will hold no surprises; there's the same surefooted feeling albeit with some body roll when pushing in the corners. Geared more toward cruising than strafing apexes, the suspension provides a comfy ride more in keeping with this car's "relax, dude" personality.

Likewise, the roomy interior gives the same impression as the coupe, that of sitting in a bathtub due to the relatively wide body and high beltline. The leatherette (German for "vinyl") seats are firm and well bolstered and should be easy to keep clean — an important quality in a cabin that's exposed to the elements from time to time.

The New Beetle convertible will make its stateside debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, with the car going on sale around February of 2003. Initial pricing (including destination) starts at $21,000 for the GL and moves up to $22,400 for the GLS. The belated 1.8T models (to be introduced in the spring of 2003) will list at $24,650 for the GLS 1.8T with the loaded-up GLX going for $26,100.

Yeah, it may have taken the company a half-decade to add a convertible to the New Beetle lineup, but the polished end result looks, for the most part, to have been worth the wait. But for those who don't have to be the first on their block to get this car, we would suggest waiting just a little longer for the turbo version.

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