2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
October 31, 2002

In the past few years, there have been several new models that have attempted to answer questions that hadn’t been asked, or fill niches that didn’t exist. The Volkswagen New Beetle convertible is not one of them. To anyone who knows cars and understands the ongoing enthusiasm behind the New Beetle, a droptop version is an absolutely risk-free endeavor, and one that will create an instant queue of eager buyers.

After building up several years of anticipation for the New Beetle convertible, in the first few minutes of cruising around the Miami and South Florida area in a New Beetle convertible, I’d already decided that the New Beetle convertible’s neat packaging was everything I expected it to be. What took me a little bit by surprise is that the New Beetle convertible is a serious chick car—a car that definitely gathers more glances from women than men. That observation held true for the rest of the day. Female drivers pulled alongside to check out the car, sometimes blocking lane changes while gawking. A Camaro convertible driver wearing a gold chain around his neck gave a passing, uninterested glance at our Beetle. Could the fresh daisy in the vase have scared him off?

Review continues below

A ‘chick car’?

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

Enlarge Photo
Unlike the Cabrio (based on the last-generation Golf) that directly precedes it, which appealed mostly to the sorority crowd, Volkswagen’s new convertible is expected to have a demographic that’s almost impossible to pin down. Females are still expected to outnumber males (65/35, they say). But, unlike the Cabrio, you’d probably be just as likely to see the New Beetle convertible at the beach as in a stodgy gated community next to a Range Rover. Along with the Mini, the New Beetle continues to transcend age and income level.

Volkswagen says that it wants to make the New Beetle convertible the highest-volume (and lowest-priced) convertible in North America, which shouldn’t be difficult to fulfill. VW is planning to produce 50,000 convertibles per year at its Puebla, Mexico, assembly, allocating 30,000 for the North American market and 20,000 for Germany and other world markets. Total U.S. New Beetle sales should be boosted back up to the 80,000-unit level it was for its first two full years of 1999 and 2000. Officials predict that all convertibles are already spoken for with dealerships, and the first year’s production will move out right away, assuring VW another couple years of solid New Beetle sales.

So why did it take VW so long to bring the convertible version of the New Beetle to market? As the Audi TT and the VW Beetle are on the same basic platform, it shouldn’t have taken too significant of an engineering investment, though sources said Germany needed assurance that the New Beetle was going to be a long-term sales success in order to give the final go-ahead on a New Beetle-based convertible (rather than, for instance, a Golf-based convertible). As if they weren’t sure it would sell!

With help from Karmann (who designed the top for the original Beetle convertible), the top was carefully sculpted to keep the New Beetle’s signature roofline arc. In following, the top keeps the standard New Beetle’s basic interior dimensions—and excess of front headroom and shortage of rear headroom. There’s a noticeable decrease in rear cargo space (5 cubic ft in the convertible versus 12 cubic ft in the sedan).

Less cargo space, smaller in the back seat

The unique shape of the New Beetle created some unusual packaging constraints for the convertible. The entire rear seat area needed to be redesigned, and, for instance, in order for the rear windows to lower all the way, a complex guide system had to be created.

Thanks to good work on aerodynamics, the top-down experience isn’t especially windy even though the windshield is so far away from the seating position. There’s a significant difference in wind turbulence between 65 and 70 mph, so it’s just comfortable enough to maintain a conversation and keep the top down at or below that speed. The convertible offers an optional ($250) wind deflector to help reduce high-speed turbulence in the basin-like interior. It helped only slightly at our slightly higher-than-legal speeds, and should help significantly at even higher speeds.

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

Enlarge Photo
The three-layer cloth soft top is quite well insulated for wind noise and weather, and remarkably easy to take up and down. By simply pulling out and twisting the large lever/handle just above the rearview mirror, the top is locked or released from the windshield and can raise or lower in only 13 seconds through a console mounted switch. When opening or closing the top, the temperature gauge in the overhead console instead shows a special orange indicator until the operation is completed. The windows—including the uniquely shaped rear windows—automatically raise and lower along with the top. In standard GL trim, which we did not have the opportunity to sample, the top is manually opened and closed.

Several VW firsts are offered on the New Beetle convertible. It’s the first application of an automatic rollbar protection system on a VW (and in a vehicle with such a low price point), and it’s also VW’s first product to offer a six-speed automatic transmission.

Pop-up rollover protection; new six-speed automatic

The all-new roll bar system uses a sensor-based system to anticipate a rollover situation and deploy Automatic Rollover Supports. Anticipating a rollover, the system pops the spring-loaded headrests up 10.4 inches and locks them into place, forming supports that are strong enough for the vehicle’s weight and protecting front and rear passengers in combination with a reinforced windshield frame. The automatic system eliminates the need for a permanent roll bar like that in the outgoing Cabriolet, eliminating the associated design obstacles and allowing better aerodynamics.

Although the four-speed automatic transmission that’s optional on the New Beetle sedan is quite responsive, the convertible’s new six-speed manual gearbox, supplied by Japan’s Aisin and replacing the four-speed as optional, allows closely spaced ratios that take better advantage of the engine’s power. That’s especially important because the convertible weighs in at an extra 262 pounds, in GLS trim.

For the convertible, practically speaking, the automatic car accelerates just as fast as the five-speed manual, bringing a no-nonsense, foot-to-the-floor 0-to-60 time of 11.8 seconds, versus 11.4 for the manual (with a skilled shifter). In the lighter New Beetle sedan, times are 10.2 seconds for the manual and 11.5 for the four-speed automatic, to give you an idea of how much better the six-speed auto is. Because the 2.0-liter’s torque curve is so robust in the middle revs, and the ratios are so well chosen, the automatic is very responsive in real-world driving. Fuel economy with the new automatic stands at 22 city and 29 highway, one mpg less in the city than the standard Beetle with the four-speed automatic. Not bad for a fun machine.

The six-speed automatic offers a Tiptronic mode, which allows manual selection of the six gears, although full throttle will still force a downshift even in manual mode. For 2003, this excellent new transmission is only offered in the convertible: not in the standard New Beetle, not in the Golf, and not in the Jetta.

More power on the way

We didn’t get the chance to drive any vehicles equipped with the 1.8-liter turbo, which won’t be offered for a few months yet, but the 150-hp engine should trim acceleration times by about three seconds, leaving more power for mountainous terrain and stress-free passing. The higher-output 180-hp version (in Beetle S trim) will likely be offered in the future, though not for the first model year.

Engineers paid extra attention to the New Beetle convertible’s vibrational characteristics. The engine and transmission together are designed to dynamically absorb vibration, and stabilizers were added to reinforce the steering column and prevent the steering wheel jitter that plagues convertibles.

The base 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine incorporates several improvements—also exclusive to the convertible—for better drivability and smoothness in the convertible. Dual balance shafts aid in keeping vibrations away, and a revised intake system helps boost the torque curve throughout. Peak torque is 125 lb-ft, up 3 lb-ft from the same engine in other models.

On the flat, straight highways of South Florida, where we had a chance to run a convertible through its paces in the sunshine, we found the 2.0-liter has adequate power for most needs. Those who drive on sloped terrain or appreciate stress-free passes will probably appreciate the added power of the 1.8T.

Body free of jitters

As we didn’t encounter any curvy roads, it was difficult to tell whether the convertible sacrifices any handling ability. The body felt extremely stiff and free of the typical cowl shake, save for a slight shudder we noticed in the rearview mirror over pockmarked surfaces.

VW officials said that they expect the convertible to return the same excellent crash-test results as the standard New Beetle (four stars in frontal injury, five and three stars, respectively for side driver and passenger injury).

Other features offered on the convertible include side mirrors with integrated turn signals (now on all Beetles), special chrome accents on the outside, a trunk pass-through since the seats don’t fold down, and a revised, more powerful ten-speaker sound system that’s designed to win out over wind buffeting.

Though the New Beetle is forging a new niche for itself in the current automotive market, we think that it will steal a significant chunk of sales away from Chrysler Sebring and Toyota Solara shoppers—those looking for the convertible experience but not needing sports-car abilities or a luxury-car nameplate. Judging by the looks we got on the street, the New Beetle definitely has more flash than either of those cars. And for many, being seen is an important part of convertible ownership.

After a day of driving around in the New Beetle, the droptop’s appeal sank in. It’s a no-fuss, and flashy but simple fun cruiser that’s practical year-round, easy on gas, and easy to park.

You can’t go wrong with that.

2003 Volkswagen New Beetle convertible
Price: $20,450 base, $23,575 as tested
Engine: 2.0-liter inline four, 115 hp
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 98.8 in
Length: 161.1 in
Width: 67.9 in
Height: 59.1 in
Curb Weight: 3159 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/29 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual side airbags, automatic rollover supports, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescope steering wheel, rear cargo pass-through, 10-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system, keyless entry
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles



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