IAIN ROBERTSON

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Sharing its platform with the inimitable Golf results in a loaded platter of tangible benefits, states Iain Robertson, and now far removed from being a retro-oddity, the latest Beetle Cabriolet provides immense driver satisfaction.

 

Emerging from a period of extraordinary excess and automotive squandering, when ‘retrospective’ was as much in vogue, as the acquisition of rival companies, the ‘New Beetle’ preceded the introductions of the similarly comic-book-retro Chrysler PT Cruiser and the BMW Mini by three and four years respectively. The ‘New’ has now been dropped from the nomenclature of the latest Beetle iteration, which first appeared in 2011.

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To be frank, my levels of expectation were not high. The first version was not a bad car but it felt as odd as it looked strangely attractive. Its driving dynamics in hardtop form were not bad, although the soft-top variant lacked a little, as a result of some minor discrepancies in the build integrity area. Although it was keenly priced, it got off to a faltering start, almost as if the market research essential to making a new car launch viable had been based on little more than a thin fabric of consumer fibs.

 

Yet, despite a period of management uncertainty, Volkswagen persevered with the modern day, front-engined Beetle, just as it had remained stoically loyal to the original, rear-engined alternative, which, if you needed reminding, became the biggest selling motorcar in the world. The Beetle’s rebirth was helped clearly by the arrival of like-minded products, although the Chrysler effort (as neat as it might have been superficially) was allowed to die a natural death at about the right time. In many respects, the current BMW Mini and the VW Beetle should be stablemates, as they appeal to pretty much the same car-buying audience.

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Perhaps the greatest saving grace of the Beetle is that it is distinctively different to almost any car presently on sale. At a time when kissing-cousin similarities are as rife in the automotive scene as they were during the 1940s, 1950s, 1980s and the ‘noughties’, the Beetle manages its unique stance very well. Fortunately, it is a thoroughly modern car, beautifully engineered as a drop-top and thoughtfully engineered with its outstanding practicality and myriad delightful styling details.

 

For a start, its folding roof is a masterpiece of efficiency, being both water, air and environment-tight, when erected (the cabin is a comfortable and refined place), but offering full convertible benefits, including no robbing of valuable boot space, when it is electrically-folded (and speedily too) above the boot area. Dependent on the size of the driver and front passenger, the rear seats can accommodate two people of moderate stature but they can also fold hatchback-like to increase the available luggage area.

 

The cockpit is predominated by (in the test car) an expanse of body-coloured plastic across the dashboard, which is reminiscent of the untrimmed metal dash of the original Beetle. It generates a smile, much as did the Fiat Coupe of the mid-1990s, which also featured a modern version of a detail that many of us recall from our earliest driving experiences. Within it is a useful glove box, augmented by a more spacious bin located in the lower dash. A rubber-covered coin/phone tray is located in the top portion of the trim.

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Unlike the Mini, which persists with its rather silly, large central dial, the instruments of the Beetle are crystal clear and positioned directly ahead of the driver. While the rest of the trim detailing would be familiar to buyers of any other VW Group products, one notable omission, as a result of it not sharing the current ‘MQB’ platform of the Golf and other models in the VW line-up, is the lack of chassis-adjusting technology. Well, thank the stars for that! The ride quality is outstanding as standard, an aspect that I am assured lies with the model’s greater weight and a need for a more compliant ‘chassis’. Yet, body roll is well-controlled, while grip, cornering agility and bump suppression are in a much-appreciated class of their own.

 

Interestingly, while I have always enjoyed a ‘soft spot’ for the Beetle, in its modern renaissance, I always felt that the turbo-diesel engine afforded it the closest connection to its illustrious forebear, from a ‘rattling‘ and slightly raucous viewpoint. After all, this is not intended to be a ‘high performance’ vehicle, being designed more for show than go. Yet, while a raft of the latest technology, which includes a broader engine choice, cannot be accommodated on what is essentially an older platform, a new engine and the reason for testing this version proves to be the most ideal use of what I believe to be VW’s best engine/gearbox combo of them all.

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The unit in question is VW’s latest 1.2TSi. Despite its small, four cylinder capacity, albeit boosted by a turbocharger, it develops a modest 102bhp and provides another reason to be impressed. Rather than feeling breathless and under-engined, the Beetle makes quite remarkable progress and delivers a 0-60mph benchmark time of around 11.4 seconds, on its way to a posted top speed of 111mph. I can tell you that it never feels less than punchy. However, pushed hard, especially with the roof folded, which ruins the car‘s aerodynamic efficacy, it is quite easy to make the fuel economy slump into the mid-20s. Yet, I managed to attain around 51.0mpg (the Official Combined figure is 51.4mpg) on a light-footed trip from Lincolnshire to Rockingham Circuit, in Northamptonshire, which more than supported its case as a fuel-miser, as well as proving once again that VW is one of those rare brands that can actually achieve its posted figures.

 

What makes the result even more impressive is that the engine power is directed through a DSG automated-manual gearbox (two foot-pedals; two steering-wheel paddles). Featuring seven forward ratios, as well as ‘stop-start’ technology (which is clever enough in its own right), it drives like an automatic, is actually smoother in most situations and is so perfectly matched to the engine’s power and torque delivery that it makes for the most compelling drive-train combination of almost any car that I have driven in the past five years at least.

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Aided by the stop-start technology, the CO2 emissions figure is a modest 127g/km and the insurance is pegged at a wholly reasonable and affordable Group 15E, which is probably as much to do with the typical safety features (those inherent to the car and the extra ‘pop-up’ roll bars behind the rear seats), as it is Volkswagen’s typical duty of care in making its cars meet company fleet expectations. As a result, I feel that a Beetle would serve eminently well as a private purchase, even though its price tag is a fairly steep £23,070, plus the several options fitted (sat-nav, stereo upgrade, parking sensors, light and sight pack, heated front seats). As a business proposition, either for the ‘user-chooser’, or fleet acquisition, while invoice bottom-line is less of an issue, you would need to take care on the tick-box front for taxation purposes.

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The ‘Mirror-Link’ fitted to the test car’s ICE is outstanding, making the Bluetooth connection to my android ’phone childs-play, which is not a compliment that I can apply to a great many new cars. Part of the light and sight pack are the illuminated trim rings around the Fender door speakers that glow an eerie red nocturnally and introduce a soupcon of additional interest to the cockpit.

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The car’s driving position is excellent, even for a driver of my two metres height, with a more than adequate rake and reach adjustable steering column and a typical VW range of seat adjustments. While the boot can be extended usefully, even when the 50:50-split rear seats are not folded down, the boot is far more spacious than it was in the previous generation model, although the access between the rear oval lamp units is slightly compromised by the car’s bootlid design.

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Conclusion:   Volkswagen knows its onions on the packaging front. As a ‘specialist’ car, it is capable of transporting up to four adults in moderate comfort. However, its first-class driveability, minimal amount of ‘scuttle-shake’ (a common issue on drop top cars), delicious road manners, eminently practical cabin design and unique styling are obvious attractions. However, it is the marvellous concoction afforded by the best engine that VW Group offers, in league with the 7-speed DSG transmission that makes the VW Beetle Cabriolet one of the best ‘fun cars’ that money can buy.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).