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The 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune convertible deceptively named for two reasons: first, while “Dune” in the context of a Beetle is an obvious reference to dune buggies, this modern Beetle really isn’t any more off-road capable than a normal one. Second, it seems to have almost nothing to do with Frank Herbert’s iconic science fiction novel, Dune, except for a few lumps of what I’m pretty sure was the spice Melange I found under the floormat. Even so, it’s a fun car.

(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive the Beetle Dune so badly they sent me one for a whole week to test.)

It’s not exactly a surprise that the Beetle Dune is all show and no go when it comes to the off-roading, rugged aspect; we’d pretty much guessed that ever since we saw the concept. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, because there’s so many reasons why Volkswagen could have done this up right.

The Beetle has a very respectable off-road heritage, perhaps one of the best for any 2WD vehicle ever. The entire category of dune buggies was started with original Beetles getting second off-road lives, so, conceptually, a modern Beetle designed for off-road use doesn’t seem to be such a crazy idea, right?

I mean, Volkswagen has their Golf Alltrack that they’re bringing to the U.S. soon, and that has their 4Motion all wheel drive and increased ride height on what’s essentially the same basic platform as the Beetle Dune; would it have killed them to have incorporated that real tech into the Beetle Dune?

They talk about both cars in the same press release, even – it’s maddening because it really seems like the Beetle Dune could have been something really amazing, a Beetle that would compete against cars like the Renegade and other more off-road capable fun cars.

But that’s not what we got, is it? You get 235/45 all-season tires, the track and ride height have been increased by less than an inch in both dimensions (0.6 inch and 0.4 inch, respectively) giving you the ability to drive comfortably over some species of roach that a stock Beetle wouldn’t otherwise clear.

On top of that, the “skid plates” are just metallic-covered plastic and would turn into recycling bin-filler at their first real use, and all that black cladding is really only useful in defending the car from errant shopping carts. It’s a Beetle in a costume.

But here’s the thing about being in a costume: generally, when you’re wearing a costume, you’re having a pretty good time. And that, at least, I can comfortably say the Beetle Dune Convertible is pretty damn good at: showing you a good time.

Okay, so you’re not really going to be able to compete with all those rough-and-tumble Class 11 Beetles you see tearing ass out in Baja. Fine. If you’re like most of people, that’s unlikely to change your life plans much. What you get instead is a car with an instantly recognizable shape, a great color scheme that you can pick out of an average parking lot from orbit, and an engaging, fun driving experience with the option of having infinite headroom.

Nobody is going to be pissed in a Beetle Dune. The car doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s a fantastic quality in a car.

What I Did With It

VW loaned me this car to drive up from my home in Better Carolina to where they were holding their bonkers RC car race thing in Washington, D.C. Because my little boy loves Our Nation’s Capitol in a way that only a 5-year-old can, I took him and my wife with me.

This proved to be a very good test of the car: cramming in a little kid, two adults (one normal sized, one me), and all their luggage on a roughly four hour highway trip. We even had to cram a big stroller in there, because there’s a lot of walking in DC and all you judgey parents are welcome to schlep a sleeping/tired/hungry 40 pound loon without one, but not me.

That stroller did highlight an inherent advantage of a convertible: when you can take the top off your car, you can cram much bigger stuff in it. By folding down one side of the back seat, I was able to fit the folded stroller in next to Otto in his kid seat, but to get it in and out, the top had to be down. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it worked.

After the trip, I mostly drove it around town, with the top down as much as possible, and even did try a little bit of soft off-roading with it, because if VW thinks they can make a car called the Dune and make it look like this and think I’m not going to try something off-road, then they’re as deluded as an EPA emissions tester sucking on a Jetta TDI tailpipe.

What I Liked

I really enjoyed just driving in it and being inside it, a combination of the gleeful anti-“aspirational” look and spirit of the car and the well-executed interior. I’m especially fond of the body colored dash and the yellow stitching on the upholstery.

It feels good to be in the car, and you can tell that this is one of those few cars that manage to expand their bubble of possibly-delusional delight to outside the car. People see this strange mustardish yellow Bug wearing designer hiking gear, and they smile. People who used to own Beetles back when they had their engines in the right place and were cooled with a different state of matter (not solid) come up to the car and peer in the windows. In a car like this, you provide a tiny service of Mild Joy Dispersal to the community, and there’s some value to that.

It did the job of being a convertible very well, for two important reasons. First, thanks to the limitations imposed by the retro design, all modern Beetle convertibles are immune from an issue suffered by almost every other convertible today: excess windshield rake.

Because this Beetle is emulating the near-vertical windshield of a classic Beetle, when the top is open, you don’t have the unpleasant feeling that the upper bar of the windshield frame is mere inches from your forehead, like nearly every other modern convertible I’ve driven. It makes top-down driving much more enjoyable.

Speaking of tops, Volkswagen has one of the absolute finest convertible tops I’ve ever encountered, and that includes the Bentley convertible I drove. The convertible top is no-joke fantastic. Volkswagen has had glass-window’d, multi-layered tops since the ‘50s. Maybe this is really Karmann’s innovation, but no VW convertible has ever had the visible-metal ribs and shitty plastic rear windows that cars like MGs and Skylarks were saddled with.

The VW convertible top is like a glorious inedible sandwich of layers of canvas, insulation, some magic sound-deadening whatever, and a nice headliner, now sensibly done in black. There’s no manual latches or anything; it’s totally automatic, up and down, and at highway speeds and even in the torrential rain we hit on the road, the top was as quiet and dry as a hardtop. It’s impressive.

What Was Just Okay

The actual business of driving the Dune—the handling, the acceleration, the overall feel—is fine, but that’s about it, if I’m honest. The 1.8-liter turbo four makes 170 HP, which isn’t a bad number, but mated to the six-speed auto it gives performance that’s adequate, but not really engaging enough to be fun.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh because I drove the Beetle’s more potent drivetrain in the GSR— 210 HP, with a nice six-speed manual—and I found that setup to be a blast. I know this current Beetle platform is certainly capable of being a genuinely rewarding driving experience, and, again, it’s sort of maddening that VW didn’t outfit the Dune with the innards to match its fun exxards. Because they could have.

Now, I didn’t take the thing on a track, so I’m not going to pretend I really pushed the Dune’s limits of handling and braking and speed, so I’ll just leave it as it’s fine, but nothing to write your dad in prison about. Just tell him about Stranger Things instead.

Gas mileage was only just okay as well, by modern standards. I think I was getting around 26-28 MPG in city driving, and about 28-32 MPG on the highway. That’s fine, but for a modern car, it’s by no means exceptional.

The interior room is not incredibly spacious, and this is probably best thought of as a 2+2, but it actually dealt with a kid in the child seat okay. I think two kids in child seats would be trickier, and two full-sized adults in the back is probably best for short trips, but if you think of it as an occasional rear seat, the interior makes sense.

What I Didn’t Like

I think one of the biggest things that bothered me about the Dune is, in some ways, one of the most trivial, but I think it also may be one of the most telling about how Volkswagen is building cars. It’s the little dot-matrix screen in the instrument cluster.

Overall, the dash and instrument cluster look great, with nice, big, color-keyed dials. They feel appropriate for a car that’s around $30,000. But then you get to the little inset multi-purpose digital information screen, and it looks a lot like the sort of display my Apple //e was capable of producing.

Actually, that’s not true; at a similar resolution, my Apple //e could display six whole colors, and this display can only do two. VW puts these cheap-ass, low-resolution one-bit displays in so many of their cars, and I have no idea why.

The Honda Civic I reviewed last time is significantly cheaper and yet has an full-color, high-resolution instrument cluster display that’s absurdly better than this. It’s like comparing a Newton MessagePad to an iPhone 6. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Sure, you can argue that the VW’s simple display gets the same information across, but the truth is it doesn’t get that information to the driver nearly as well. Color and increased resolution allow so much more leeway to design better, easier-to-read displays: VW’s display sucks, and that’s it.

It’s a detail, yes, but it’s a detail you stare at every time you drive, and there’s no good reason why it should be this far below the current standards. This seems a lot of bitching for that little screen, but with everything else on the car done to a pretty high standard, it stands out.

Also a trivial complaint? The key. That same fucking key design VW has used since, what, 1995? It’s been redesigned, sure, but you can barely tell.

Come on, Volkswagen, design a new key, already. The Beetle should have a fun key. Tesla and Porsche have those near-little-toy-car versions of their keys; if any car deserves a similar treatment, it’s the Beetle, right?

The cargo room is also pretty compromised here. I mean, I know it’s a convertible, and there are almost always reduced cargo volumes when you factor in motors for the roof and folded top stowage, but that doesn’t change that this little trunk isn’t very big. Here, look under the back lid there:

It still stings there’s not really an engine back there.

Here’s a shot with actual luggage:

I mean, it’s usable for two people if you just accept that the back seats will get folded down for cargo, but more than two gets iffy.

This also has to go into the Not Good section: the Beetle Dune comes with Apple’s CarPlay, which I actually like and find that it works quite well. But, for some reason, on my press car it only worked about half the time.

For some reason, every other time (roughly) that I plugged in my phone, the system simply wouldn’t recognize it. I tried multiple cables, iPhones, everything but it just seemed to be an intermittent issue. The phone charged, so it wasn’t the USB port totally dying; maybe just the data lines had an issue? I’m not sure, but it was frustrating.

The Verdict

I like Volkswagen’s current version of the retro Beetle. I like the looks, I like the way the drive (with the manual, and ideally with the 210 HP engine), and even though I know it’s just a Golf in an insect costume, I’m still very glad it exists.

I like convertibles, too, and I like cars with personality and vivid color and a certain IDGAF gleefulness about just being: the Beetle Dune Convertible is definitely all that.

But it’s also incredibly frustrating, because the Dune spec is, really, a joke. If the Beetle itself is a Golf in costume, the Dune is a Golf in a Beetle costume in an off-road costume. It has, really, no additional off-road capability, and yet you can never shake the feeling that it could have.

This car is a fun aesthetic kit for a Beetle, but it could have been so much more, if VW actually took the time to really give a shit.

The Beetle Dune Convertible’s price has not yet been set. The Dune package on the regular Beetle is about a $3,000 premium, and if we add that to the roughly $26,000 price of a base convertible Beetle, I figure the Beetle Dune Convertible will come to about $30,000.

If you want to drop $30,000 on a convertible that could seat four (in a pinch), is distinctive-looking, fun, and generally makes you feel good when you drive it, even if you can’t exactly quantify just why—then I think the Beetle Dune is a great choice.

I’m hoping at some point VW will re-release this with some real ride height, their 4Motion system, and skid plates made from something other than Tupperware, but until then, it’s still a fun car.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)

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