No car has transformed as radically over the course of its nameplate as the Volkswagen Beetle. It started life as a plebeian, practical family car with the engine in the back driven by Germans and then hippies and then crazy people, and then it morphed into a super cute front-wheel drive premium lifestyle accessory in the mid-1990s.
Where does that leave the current car, the third model to bear the Beetle name, launched back in 2011? It's definitely not the bare-bones, air-cooled Beetle of yesteryear that could be fixed with a salad fork, but it also tries to be more sporting than the 90s and 2000s New Beetle, infamous for its flower vase. Did Volkswagen pull it off?
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive a 2015 Beetle Convertible so badly they dropped one off at my house for a week with a full tank of gas, even though it was rainy and mostly in the 30s and I never got a single day of sunshine when I had the car. Yes, this winter was horrible everywhere, even Texas.)
The R-Line trim was a new one introduced last year, and it came with fancy 19-inch alloy wheels, the 210 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque GTI motor, red brake calipers and some nice exterior tweaks like that flat baby-911 rear wing.
Call me crazy but I actually like the way it looks. (Then again, I drive a Mini Cooper and I'm trying to buy a Miata soon, so I like goofy retro shit like this.) VW's goal with the 2011 redesign was to make it more "masculine" so it would appeal to young dudes, and I guess that worked.
Then again, when my wife got in the car, the first thing she said was "This is so girly. It's something a 16-year-old girl would want in hot pink."
She didn't mean that in a bad way like some do, but there you go. It's girly, according to an actual woman. Whatever. The most important thing is how it drives. I like sporty Volkswagens, so I was actually excited to experience the latest Beetle, if you can believe it.
It's got a solid pedigree. While not as sophisticated as the newer MQB platform cars, this Beetle is based on the previous sixth generation Golf platform and has the 2.0-liter turbo engine from the last GTI. (The new GTI has more power, by the way.) It also has a convertible top. In theory, this is a car that should be pretty fun to drive.
In practice, it is... kind of. But it's not as fun as I expected it to be. It's not a cute GTI with a roofless option like I thought. And spec'd out like my tester was, it was priced at an unreasonable and somewhat insane $35,915. For a Beetle! People's car, my ass. Rich people maybe.
Worse than the price, I actually got kind of bored driving it after a while. I'm a fan of hatches with turbo engines, so that's not something I normally say, but it's what happened here. If driving fun is what you're after, there are a lot of better options out there, including ones from VW.
Exterior - 7/10
I dig the current Beetle's geometric, unapologetically round design. It's got some interesting details once you examine it up close, like the front and rear fender haunches, the tail lamps, the angular front grille, and that delightful spoiler in the back. It's fun! It's a fun car to look at. It may not be aggressive and masculine and badass, but it's comfortable being what it is.
The R-Line is good, but I liked the limited edition GSR of 2014 better. That's my favorite modern Beetle to date, in part also because also it's a sharper performer than the car you're currently reading about.
Interior - 6/10
It's a mixed bag inside. The seats aren't as comfortable or well-bolstered as some from Volkswagen but they're alright. Generally the materials are high quality, and I liked the triple gauge cluster above the dash. I'll say this too — it's remarkably quiet inside with the convertible top up, which isn't always the case. I was a fan of the flat-bottom steering wheel too.
I didn't like was the odd and persistent rattle coming from the dash, the lack of power seats on such a pricey car, or the blank buttons on the center panel of what's supposed to be a well-equipped model. Death to blank buttons.
Acceleration - 6/10
Volkswagen's 2.0-liter EA888 turbo engine is one of the best four-bangers around. It's a fantastic motor that punches way above its weight class with loads and loads of torque from about 2500 RPM up to redline. Zero to 60 mph is in the upper six-second range and it never wants for highway acceleration. Torque steer is nonexistent.
And yet, probably because of its added convertible weight, it just never feels quite as fast as some GTIs I've driven. Even with the turbo, the Beetle isn't as potent a performer as expected, never quite feels like it's up to par with VW's real hot hatch. This hatch is warm, but it's not hot.
Braking - 6/10
I was reasonably impressed by the braking. The R-Line gets larger front rotors and they hold up in any kind of driving. The pedal has a good amount of feel. These are solid brakes that don't melt your brains.
Ride - 6/10
The ride is decent overall. The suspension is on the soft side without being overly coddling. It rides like your average modern economy car, which is to say not abusive but hardly outstanding. At least it doesn't beat you up the way some hatches do.
Handling - 5/10
Here's where the Beetle disappointed me the most, probably. I was expecting GTI levels of handling and what I got was a heavy Golf. The Beetle plows into corners with massive levels of understeer and body flex. It's floaty, and never predictable or tossable. It kind of falls all over itself on a good back road.
The electric steering is fine. It's got a nice weight to it, but it's not especially direct or full of feel. Annoyingly, there's no ESC or traction control off button, so I have to dock it a point for that too. Lame.
Gearbox - 8/10
Besides the motor, probably the best thing about the Beetle is the six-speed dual clutch DSG. By now, you should know how good this gearbox is. It's still a bit jerky at lower speeds, but above that it works great and manual shifts are quick as lightning.
While I found the car a bit sluggish compared to other sporting VWs I've driven, it's noticeably quicker, more aggressive and more enjoyable to drive with the transmission in sport mode. I kept it there most of the time I wasn't shifting myself.
Audio - 6/10
Piped in through VW's Soundaktor, the four-cylinder engine makes a nice rumble that's satisfying to hear under hard acceleration, even if it's not terribly distinctive. Otherwise, it's pretty quiet overall. I did like the sound quality from the Fender audio system.
Toys - 7/10
It's a pretty standard set of nice-car toys. Navigation, a relatively small but usable touch screen, heated seats, satellite radio, and the nice eight-speaker Fender audio system. A backup camera would have been nice. I don't usually say that, but the blind spots from the convertible top make backing up kind of tricky.
I bumped it up to a seven because the droptop is super easy to use. Just hold a switch above the mirror, wait about 10 seconds and you're done. I'm just sad I didn't get more of a chance to drive with the top down, but I can't control the weather.
Not yet, anyway.
Value - 4/10
Like the Golf, or its competitor the Mini Cooper, the Beetle has a wide range of differently priced models, from a spartan coupe with the 1.8-liter turbo engine starting at $20,195 to this R-Line Convertible on the higher end. You can even get a manual diesel convertible Beetle if you want, which is magical.
Unfortunately, I can't in good conscience recommend you spend nearly $36,000 on a Beetle, as it is equipped here. At that price I'd much rather have the new 2016 Golf R, which is an outstanding car, or a GTI and just pocket the extra cash for APR parts or groceries or blow or whatever. Personally I'd also prefer the new Mini Cooper S, the Fiat 500 Abarth, the excellent Golf Sportwagen and any number of other, more sporting hot hatches over this Beetle.
Ultimately the Beetle Convertible will be for the people who want it over anything else, the people who fall in love with its looks and who don't mind spending almost $36,000 on it. I think there are better options out there, but if this is what you really want, then I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Engine: 2.0L Turbo Four
Power: 210 HP at 5,300 RPM/ 207 LB-FT at 1,700
Transmission: Six-Speed Dual Clutch
0-60 Time: 6.7 seconds (Car and Driver estimate that seems accurate to me)
Top Speed: 126 mph (limited)
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,293 LBS
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 23 City/29 Highway
MSRP: $35,095 (As Tested: $35,915)