1998 Volkswagen New Beetle


2003 Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible

This 2003 review is representative of model years 1998 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 6

Bottom Line:

Just what the New Beetle needs for more driving kicks and to help its sales.
  • Sporty look
  • Decent performance
  • Optional 6-speed automatic transmission
  • Tight rear seat
  • Hard-to-reach seat belts
  • Long wait needed for turbo engine

It seems like it has taken forever for Volkswagen to introduce its New Beetle convertible. This trim allows more driving kicks and broadens the New Beetle line.

The New Beetle soft-top trim is the lowest-priced, highest-volume European convertible. It's seemingly the only different version left for the New Beetle—short of an all-wheel-drive trim—because the car's shape doesn't allow making something like, say, a station wagon version.

The front-drive, subcompact New Beetle convertible comes in base GL, mid-range GLS and top-line GLX form. Prices range from $20,450 to $26,725.

Long Convertible History
Volkswagen dealers have wanted a New Beetle convertible since introduction of the New Beetle hardtop in 1998. And why not? Convertibles have been an important part of Volkswagen history since the first "old Beetle" convertible arrived here in 1953—several years after the hardtop trim was introduced.

In fact, the last old Beetle sold in this country was a 1979 convertible because the hardtop version was dropped in 1977. The old Beetle convertible was followed by Volkswagen's Rabbit and Cabrio soft-tops.

And let's not forget Volkswagen's Karmann-Ghia convertible. It had a custom body on an old Beetle chassis and was sold, along with a hardtop coupe version, from 1958 until Volkswagen dropped the Karmann-Ghia here in 1974.

The New Beetle convertible arrives at a seemingly awkward time, with the northern half of the country entering cold, snowy winter.

Suited for Winter
However, the New Beetle convertible has a strong heater and snug-fitting top with a glass rear window and defroster. And the mid-range GLS is offered with a $150 Cold Weather package, which has heated front seats and heated windshield washer nozzles. Those items are standard on the GLX.

The cloth-lined, three-layer top helps keep the top-up interior pretty quiet. But it creates large rear blind spots when raised and doesn't vanish under a metal or plastic panel when lowered.

Rather, the top remains in full view to provide the "baby buggy" look of the lowered top of the old Beetle convertible. The top is manually operated on the GL, but has power operation with the GLS and GLX. It opens and closes in 13 seconds, either way.

Sales Problems
The convertible promises to help boost sales of the New Beetle, which was the hottest mass-produced auto when introduced in 1998. But sales have been falling for several years—despite the addition of new hardtop versions, which include a 180-horsepower turbocharged trim.

Volkswagen expects to sell 30,000 New Beetle convertibles in the car's first full year in America. It also hopes that the convertible will increase interest in other Volkswagen models, as was the case with the New Beetle hardtop.

"Chick Car"
The New Beetle convertible is called a "chick car" in the industry because Volkswagen expects that two-thirds will be bought by women—most expected to be married and fairly affluent, with college degrees. In fact, most Volkswagen convertibles have been bought by women. That was especially the case with the automaker's Cabrio.

But Volkswagen feels that more men will be drawn to the New Beetle convertible with the upcoming turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, which has 150-horsepower and arrives next spring. It will be offered for the GLS and come standard in the GLX. Trims with the turbo engine will add "1.8 T" to the car's designation.

Decent Performance
The New Beetle convertible initially comes only with a 2.0-liter 115-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, which has been revised with a broader torque band to better suit the convertible. While the car is no hot rod with that engine, it provides decent performance—especially with the standard 5-speed manual gearbox.

However, lots of shifting is needed for the best acceleration. The 65-75 mph passing time is decent even in fourth gear, but third gear is best for that situation.

The shifter is easy to use and works with a light but long-throw clutch. The tachometer shows a high 3200 rpm at 65 mph and an even higher 3750 rpm at 75 in fifth gear. But the engine generally is smooth and quiet during highway driving.

Desirable Automatic Transmission
Costing extra is a responsive 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature. It's the first such transmission in the New Beetle market segment—and helps deliver better performance than a 4-speed automatic, which usually is found in the New Beetle convertible's price range.

Thanks to the extra two speeds, the automatic doesn't affect acceleration much. For instance, the 0-60 mph time is 11.4 seconds with the manual gearbox and 11.8 with the automatic.

Estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway with the manual and 22 and 29 with the automatic, using regular-grade gasoline.

Easy to Live With
The 115-horsepower New Beetle convertible is user-friendly in town and has the feel of a larger, laid-back convertible. Handling is good, but steering is only moderately fast. And the suspension is soft for a smooth ride, which occasionally becomes a little bouncy. The brake pedal even has a soft feel. A $280 stability control system is offered for 115-horsepower trims and is standard on turbocharged versions.

Besides its soft-top, the New Beetle convertible is distinguished by an exterior chrome accent surround, side mirrors with nifty integrated turn signals and a redesigned rear trunk design with an integrated third brake light.

Shakes and Rattles
This convertible has a few shakes and rattles on rough roads, but generally feels solid. Volkswagen stiffened the body with items such as a rear seat support that enhances chassis rigidity. How the car will feel after 50,000 remains to be seen.

Higher-line trims have more equipment. But even the base GL is equipped with air conditioning, anti-lock all-disc brakes, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, power windows and locks, and nicely sized outside mirrors. It also has fairly large 16-inch wheels.

The GLS and GLX add items such as the power top. The GLX 1.8 T trim has standard leather seats, upscale audio system and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Options? They include a $250 wind blocker to reduce wind turbulence with the top down and $400 (17-inch) alloy wheels for turbocharged versions. Leather seats are standard in the GLX and optional for the GLS in a $900 leather package.

Safety Items
Concerned about safety? Standard for all trims are roll bars behind the rear seat that pop up during an accident situation—no matter if the top is up or down. Up front are regular airbags and side-impact airbags in the seatbacks.

Tight Rear Seat
There are comfortable seats in the front, where tall persons will find plenty of room. But the rear seat has tight legroom and is best suited to children. It features a lockable pass-through area from the small trunk

Faults include long doors that make entry and exit difficult in tight spots. And the trunk lid doesn't open enough to allow a good finger grip after its release button is pushed. Other gripes include front seat belts that are hard to reach and cupholders placed low at the front of the console. The dashboard layout also should be improved.

But the standard leatherette upholstery should help make the interior easy to clean and maintain, which is a definite plus with a soft-top trim.

The New Beetle convertible promises to have a fairly large market. It will have nostalgic appeal to former owners of the old Beetle convertible. And it promises to attract those who want a moderately priced European soft-top with four seats.


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BB05 - 9/17/2014 12:56:12 AM