Contrary to popular wisdom, the mighty Volkswagen Group – on its way to becoming the No. 1 auto maker in the world by sales – cannot control the weather.
And so it comes to pass here at the global launch of the reinvented Volkswagen Beetle ragtop that it's raining cats and dogs and, lordy, even elephants from time to time. Here in usually sunny southern California, our top-down test drive, therefore, is limited to the 30-odd seconds we get between the end of each of three major winter storms hitting California's West Coast and the beginning of the next.
VW may be able to slash the price of its latest and third-generation Beetle convertible while adding content, but today it's pouring on VW's convertible parade. Too bad, that. I'd have liked a long winter drive in the California sun.
Instead, I am left damp, pondering the price of this new Beetle: $28,775, down from the last Beetle droptop in 2010, which started at $29,175. Thomas Tetzlaff, the always decorous VW Canada spokesperson, goes on to argue that his colleagues in engineering and product planning also added content. That brings the so-called "value" bonus to $2,600 in the customer's direction.
The numbers tale leaves me wondering if I'm well enough in touch with my feminine side to consider – really and truly – ownership of what some argue is the ultimate "chick car." Yes, that's the Beetle convertible. If you're like me, the first image you have of a Beetle ragtop always includes a slim California lovely toodling along the Pacific Coast Highway, long blonde hair billowing in the breeze, stereo busting out with a Sheryl Crow pop ditty.
Call it a cliché. Call it a stereotype. I'm calling you wrong, says Tetzlaff. The male-female split among VW Beetle convertible buyers in Canada is about 50-50, he says. Obviously Canadian men are more comfortable in their own skin than their American counterparts, who traditionally have taken up the Beetle ragtop cause in smaller numbers versus women.
Really though, VW has done something great with the latest Beetle convertible. By making the car cheaper, it's more accessible. By making it better, it's more desirable. By creating a "masculine" design – lower, wider, bolder, less bubble-like – VW is hoping to strip away those old preconceived notions of "chick" car.
Look, for less than $30,000, you can get a solidly built four-seater with a fully-automatic fabric (and well insulated) roof that opens and closes in a sub-10-second sprint, even when you're driving along at up to 50 km/h. The trunk holds as much top-up as down-down, and if you're worried about safety, there are built-in roll-bars that explode and pop into place automatically if you're going on your lid – the car's lid, I mean.
Now, if you remember past Beetle convertibles, especially Gen 1 (330,000 sold worldwide from 1949-1979), your first thought is of an open-air ride with the body stiffness of a noodle. That one, even the 1979 version, would twist and flex and bend and bob and weave like one of those old Gumby toys. Rolling over railroad tracks, it felt as though you might be catapulted right out of the cockpit. Yet the low price and counter-culture charm built a loyal, cult-like following. But a performance machine? Not so much.
Then VW brought us the New Beetle convertible from 2003-2010 and it was certainly better built (234,619 sold in all). Expensive but nicely engineered, even VW insiders will say it was a little – how shall we say it without being slammed for more political incorrectness – a little girly. VW types don't actually use the word "girly," mind you. Never. They take another route to the same idea, though.
Consider: At an unveiling of the latest version of the Beetle in New York last spring, VW put a macho black Beetle centre-stage. Not a pink one, or a blue one or a yellow one. A black one. They also were at pains to note this latest Beetle is not the "New Beetle." As the New York Times reported, "VW brand custodians could have called it 'Not the New Beetle' so eager were they to put the cutesy image of the previous model behind it."
And VW's design director, Klaus Bischoff, said of this latest Beetle design: "We started from scratch. We wanted to give it a whole new character. We wanted to make a dynamic, sportier, more masculine car."
There. He said it: more masculine. I'm not making up the so-called feminine angle, folks.
So here at the end of 2012 we get the latest 2013 Beetle Convertible and it's very good. Solid and quiet, comfortable front buckets seats with room for someone the size of, oh, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, and a body 20 per cent stiffer than the old Beetle ragtop.
The only engine we're getting in Canada for now is the 2.5-litre five-cylinder (170 horsepower) and while not the most sophisticated five-banger, it's powerful enough to do what you'd want in a convertible of this sort. The only transmission is a nice six-speed automatic that you can shift manually. VW Canada may bring in a diesel version, but not until later next year, at the earliest.
Tetzlaff points to three obvious open-air competitors: Mini Cooper, Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Fiat 500c. The Mini is more expensive ($29,200 base) and has less power (121 hp). The Mazda ($29,145 base) is a roadster with seating for just two, but dynamically it will drive rings around any of these. And the Fiat ($19,995 base) is smaller and lacks power (101 hp), though there is seating enough to squeeze in four.
To me, this latest Beetle convertible is a sensible "sporty" car. The starter model is stuffed with features (Bluetooth, cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, a 50-50 folding rear seatback and lots more). If you must have leather seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, a stop/start button, fog/cornering lights and so on, there's the Highline version at $31,740.
Weather aside, with this new Beetle Convertible, VW looks poised to control a big chunk of the affordable ragtop market in 2013 – if not the weather in California.