2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible Road Test

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

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

There's a time when cuteness is enough. Babies are cute, and puppies and kittens are cute, too. But eventually they grow into people, dogs and cats, and once you've been on stage for awhile, cute just doesn't carry you the way it used to.

The same is true for cars. When Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle back in 1998, everyone exclaimed how cute it was; smiling at it, fawning over it and plunking down money over sticker price to show the world how hip it was to be adorable. The New Beetle had a good run with little competition until Mini launched its Cooper in 2002. Suddenly, the four-year-old New Beetle began looking like the Teen Beetle next to the young Cooper, and an awkward teenager persona isn't going to give the New Beetle much additional shelf life.

During the last few years, Volkswagen has launched some new variations in stages, adding the 1.8T and Turbo S models to the original 2.0-liter and TDI offerings. But ever since the New Beetle's debut, the public has been clamoring for a convertible model; and for 2003, Volkswagen has helped Beetle lovers realize their dream.

After attending the New Beetle convertible launch last fall, we were anxious to spend some quality time with the ragtop in our sunny Southern California environs. But fate was not exactly on our side when our test car arrived at the end of February in the middle of California's rainy season. During our week with the car, we experienced a variety of weather, allowing us to form both top-down and top-up opinions. Top-up time was a good thing because we would have needed a boat load of sunscreen in order to prepare us for the number of smiles, er, miles that we spent behind the wheel of the New Beetle convertible.

Our test vehicle was a GLS model equipped with the base 2.0-liter four. The 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, also used in the base GL convertible, has not changed significantly since the early '90s, and the moderate '03 updates are convertible benefits only, and won't be seen on the 2.0-liter hatchback. Slight modifications include balance shafts and a two-stage intake to allow a broader power spread, but the engine still offers just 115 horsepower. While most automotive editors have perfected the chant of "more power," after canvassing our editorial staff, we realized that just about everyone agreed that the 2.0-liter engine produced adequate power for cruising around in the convertible, and less time was spent dreaming of the mid-model-year offering of the faster 1.8T version. We posted a 0-to-60 time of 11.9 seconds, hardly a performance car score, but then cruising is what this car does best.

Two transmissions are available with the New Beetle convertible's front-wheel drivetrain: a standard five-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic with automanual functionality — a fuel-efficient option not typically found in a $23,000 vehicle. Our test car was equipped with the manual transmission, and its easy shifter and smooth clutch added to our opinion of the 2.0-liter engine. We might not have been as forgiving toward the limited 115 hp if we had tested the automatic instead.

As mentioned earlier, our staff accumulated some serious miles on our Galactic Blue ragtop, partly due to a Los Angeles-to-San Diego run. The New Beetle convertible was comfortable during the 200-mile round-trip, and felt poised at late-morning freeway speeds. Again, we found ourselves thinking that the 2.0-liter engine had enough zip to take an entrance ramp into fast-paced traffic, as long as shifts were appropriately timed from initial takeoff.

Certainly this European honey isn't regarded as a performance car, but we feel obligated to note a couple of items from our performance testing. At the track, the convertible ran our 60-foot slalom course at 58.5 miles per hour with minimal body roll, but our test-driver noted it was essential to carry all necessary speed into the beginning of the slalom, as the 2.0-liter engine was short on torque. With four-wheel disc brakes teamed with an antilock braking system (ABS), our New Beetle demonstrated respectable 60-to-0 braking distances with excellent pedal feel — our best was 124.3 feet. As we drove back to the office from our performance testing facility, we ran the ragtop through some twisty mountain roads. During the drive, one editor commented that the car had soft handling around corners, but provided just enough road feel and tire grip to make it entertaining.

Another excursion accounting for more ticks on the odometer was a leisurely cruise down Pacific Coast Highway on a Sunday afternoon milkshake mission. For this outing, we dropped the top. It was surprisingly simple after taking a quick glance at the owner's manual directions. We released and twisted the handle in the center of the top along the windshield, then held the center console button down as the semipower-operated cloth top with a defoggable glass rear window folded itself back and out of the way in 13 seconds. (The power top comes on GLS and GLX versions, while the base-level GL gets a manual top only.) After clipping the easy-to-install boot into place in an effort to stave off dust, dirt and, let's be honest here, beach sand, we were underway.

Hitting the 45-mph highway, the car felt tight and well-balanced, even with the roof at its back. The New Beetle convertible has greater torsional stiffness than the old VW Cabrio, and pop-up rollover supports that work with the rear headrests are ready to spring into life in the event of a rollover crash. Top quality is impressive. Three layers covered with a cloth lining make this convertible top look expensive with its high-quality, substantial feel unlike flimsy canvas, and its thickness keeps out both road and rain noise. As we continued southbound, even the chatty hat-and-sunglass-wearing two-year-old in the backseat was stunned into silence by the enjoyable experience, and never complained once about the wind in her face. (Either she's a very tolerant Terrible Two or rear-seat crosswinds were at a minimum — most likely the latter.) The driver and front passenger were able to carry on an amiable conversation without competing against the wind's volume.

During our drives, we found plenty of features to admire inside the cabin. The interior was swathed in easy-to-clean black leatherette vinyl; leather seating is an optional upgrade. The front seats are comfortably firm, and are fully reclining and height adjustable. Our car had the optional cold weather package, which gave us dial-controlled heated seats, as well as heated windshield wiper washer nozzles. Front legroom is ample as long as you keep the front seats in the far-back position. Rear legroom isn't as generous, but getting in and out of the rear seats was a cinch thanks to front seats that tumble forward, providing plenty of space for climbing in and out of the back.

Because of the New Beetle's shape, the windshield seems unusually far from the driver, and the dash exceptionally deep. Instrument panel gauges are easy to read yet funky, due to their red and purplish-blue illumination. One editor criticized the small-button stereo controls, but no one really minded the space-saving center console placement of the optional Monsoon sound system's automatic-loading six-disc CD changer (see our stereo evaluation). The center console is lockable, so there's no need to be concerned about CDs or the console's other contents while leaving the top dropped and the vehicle unattended.

Other standard convenience features include a tilt-and-telescoping steering column and front windows with an automatic one-touch up/down feature (operable from the driver side only). Not only would we like to see the one-touch feature for the rear windows as well, we'd also like an additional all-four-windows up/down button — a real benefit after you've just lowered the top.

While this is certainly a great cruising car, it's probably not the driving companion you'd choose for more than a quick weekend run, or a brief overnighter. The five cubic feet of trunk space is immediately consumed by one or two medium-size duffle bags; and if you travel exclusively with hard-sided Louis Vuitton luggage, forget about it. The small oval-shaped trunk opening wouldn't even allow one editor's airlines-regulated carry-on piece into the cargo space, but there is a rear-seat pass-through if you're insistent on loading your New Beetle with sports equipment.

If you've survived the Beetle craze thus far, and you haven't been sidetracked down the Mini Cooper's recent retro lane, then this convertible version could be the New Beetle you've been waiting for. After six years in production, Beetle mania has assuredly just about run its course. The convertible may be your last chance to purchase a New Beetle new. Soon, you may have to settle for being a Used New Beetle owner.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7.0

Components: The test bug came with the 10-speaker, amplified Monsoon sound system (standard on the GLX and optional for the other trims). It was also fitted with an optional six-CD changer in the center console that loads discs like most in-dash units, without an annoying magazine to mess with. The standard tape deck in the dash controls the discs and has a super-bright display. The speakers include 1-inch tweeters and 3.15-inch midrange speakers in the dash, 5.5-inch subwoofers in the doors, midrange speakers of the same size near the backseats with another pair of tweeters nearby.

Performance: You will get plenty of stares while driving a New Beetle convertible, but even more heads will turn if you have the top dropped and the loud Monsoon stereo blasting. The numerous speakers easily fill the cabin with sound. The speaker array in the dash sends highs and vocals bouncing off the windshield and creates a forceful soundstage that the subwoofers try to keep up with. The poor subs must also compete with an abundance of mids and highs coming from the back (especially when the top is down and some of the precious bass escapes into the atmosphere). This means those speakers are working hard at low volumes and distorting when the system is pushed. Drums and electronic bass lines are present, but do not hit hard or rumble with authority. The rest of the audible range is loud, but distortion progressively increases with the volume as cymbals hiss and vocals develop a lisp. Luckily, uncomplicated recordings, such as The Beatles' Rubber Soul, don't require tons of bass or have 64 tracks battling for attention from the speakers, and are able to highlight the good placement of the numerous drivers.

Best Feature: Six-shooter with no magazine.

Worst Feature: Bug needs more bass.

Conclusion: A fun sound system in a fun car. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
Beetle mania is dead. That includes the Volkswagen variety. In an attempt to revive the once super-hot Beetle buzz, this convertible has finally arrived. Why so late in the game? I think the answer is simple: The New Beetle has a finite shelf life and Volkswagen is playing out the last hand now. There isn't going to be a second generation, or a redesign. But I've got to admit, this last hurrah is certainly the best of what the New Beetle could possibly offer.

Getting into this convertible version brought back all the funky design memories that endeared me to our long-term New Beetle. It still has the great nighttime gauge illumination, dinner table-size dashboard, and flower holder. With the top up, it's almost as if you can't reach the ceiling. The feeling is very similar to being in an indoor stadium. Though this sensation of spaciousness may be felt by the front occupants, the rear seats are given a ridiculously small amount of room. There is almost no legroom, which makes ingress and egress of the rear seats very difficult to navigate.

Though the rear-seat space was a cause for consternation, it was all washed away once the top went down. The seemingly unlimited front passenger spaciousness gave way to the sky. Since the windshield is so far in front of the driver, you don't feel partially enclosed like in many other convertibles. It's like cruising in a motor boat. Memories of going to the beach as a kid in my friends' mom's convertible bug came rushing back. The latest version of the bug hasn't lost any of that wonderful character. It's a blast to drive! The only thing this edition lost was the terribly loud sputter of the exhaust note. The Beetle's swan song is definitely music to my ears.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
I feel indifferent toward this Beetle convertible. Certainly, it looks good inside and out, especially with the top down. And it did feel good to drive it down Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny, early spring day. But its performance didn't stir any emotions. The base four-cylinder can cruise comfortably at 65 mph, and that's about it. Want to pass another car? You've got to work at it. The suspension is very softly tuned for lazy-day driving; push the topless bug around corners and there's just enough grip to make it feel mildly fun. Besides that, the pedal placement in all Beetles is awkward for me (the gas and the brake are on two separate planes), and the pedals themselves have a gummy feel.

In spite of these complaints, I sort of wanted to like the car. I think it's cool the way the top folds back as on an original Beetle drop top, and the strut-suspended trunk lid extends outward as it opens to compensate. You'd never find that kind of attention to detail on convertibles of a similar price and personality — like the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. But $23 grand is a lot to spend on a pokey drop-top VW, and there's no way I'd pass up a Miata or MR2 Spyder to have one.

Consumer Commentary

"Fell in love with this car immediately just on looks, but was completely sold when I test-drove it. The 2.0 engine gives fine performance and really does have plenty of zip for the highway. The top operates easily and I'm just waiting for full blast spring to really have fun. A great price for a nifty baby boomer dream car. Even room in the backseat for a big dog (always use pet seatbelts). Sound system is awesome. Very quiet ride, especially for a convertible. Comfortable seats, good handling. Love the blue dash lights, too." — CelticGreyhound, Feb. 15, 2003

"VW has done a fantastic job with this new model! Great handling, fun to drive. The rag top roof is a feature I have waited for since the New Beetle introduction. Can't wait for the first spring day to pull back the roof and let the sun shine in." — MNBeetleOwner, Jan. 12, 2003

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