Driving $2 million prototypes on public roads is risky, so rather than increase the count of gray hair on their heads, Volkswagen's public relations team invited us up to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to spend some time in its all-electric E-Bugster Concept. But don't think the German automaker handed us the keys and set us free on the famed racing circuit – our drive was on the near-empty perimeter roads and our top speed was limited to less than 20 mph.
Tooling along at an insect's pace (pun intended) was hardly electrifying. But as it turned out, driving impressions weren't our primary objective. Not only did Volkswagen want to showcase its electric technology, but they also wanted to give us a sneak peek of the next-generation Beetle Convertible and gauge consumer interest in a potential Beetle Speedster model. With more than a sedate drive on our agenda, our leisurely cruise through the hills of Monterey became much more interesting.
Our first glimpse of the Volkswagen E-Bugster Concept came just before the 2012 Detroit Auto Show when Volkswagen released a slew of pictures for our first post and a gallery. The next day, we aimed our lenses at its glistening paint and fixed hard roof live from the show floor. Three months later, the automaker rolled it out again – sans top – at the Beijing Motor Show.
It is not much of a stretch to realize that the E-Bugster Concept is an early look at the next-generation Beetle convertible – expect it to officially debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this year. Ignore the burly flared fenders, crafted to encapsulate the 20-inch two-piece alloy "Fuchs-style" wheels, and peer beyond the trick front and rear fascia to see the upcoming drop-top. We don't need to remind you that the E-Bugster's chopped windshield won't make it to production for the standard vehicle (more on that later), but the real deal won't stray much from the design. Overall, thanks to its more masculine character traits, the new Beetle is going to make one great-looking convertible when we first see it in late November.
The E-Bugster Concept is an early look at the next-generation Beetle convertible.
The E-Bugster Concept is an all-electric vehicle (EV). Hidden beneath its meticulously painted skin (in person – and it seems only in direct sunlight – one can make out blue metallic flakes over the pearl white paint) is a powertrain adapted from the automaker's e-Golf. Like that five-door, the E-Bugster features an 85 kW electric motor (114 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque) driving the front wheels through a single-speed transmission. Energy comes from a 695-pound lithium-ion battery with an energy capacity of 28.3 kWh (note it has slightly higher capacity than the 26.5 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy storage in the e-Golf).
Volkswagen boasts that the central electric module weighs just 80 kg (about 176 pounds), and that helps to keep overall vehicle weight down. The engineers on site wouldn't give us a curb weight, but they did say that the E-Bugster came in lighter than the e-Golf (so we figure it has a curb weight of about 3,300 pounds). That power-to-weight ratio translates to a 0-60 sprint in just over 10 seconds and affords a range of at least 180 km (about 110 miles) in a city cycle.
Find the proper power supply, a level 3 DC fast charge unit able to provide the Volkswagen's Combined Charging System with enough juice, and the two-seater can be "refueled" within 35 minutes. At home, with a more conventional charging station (single-phase with AC current), one will need to keep it plugged-in overnight. The interface for the charger is conveniently located behind the conventional fuel-filler door.
Its power-to-weight ratio translates to a 0-60 sprint in just over 10 seconds and a range of at least 110 miles.
As mentioned, Volkswagen allowed us to cruise its expensive one-off E-Bugster concept – sans fixed top – around Laguna Seca at very slow speeds (the wheels are made by hand, thus explaining their apprehension). The German engineers had electronically limited the top speed to 30 km/h, or just 18 mph, meaning the combustion-engine chase vehicles were riding their brakes just to keep pace. In addition, the drive-by-wire throttle had been remapped so accelerator inputs were insanely lethargic (the vehicles at Disneyland's Autopia ride have quicker throttle response).
After dropping behind the steering wheel (so brilliantly white that we felt guilty touching it), we were given a tour of the tastefully executed cabin. Directly in front of the driver is a primary instrument cluster housing the a digital screen with the speedometer and other charge indicators. To the driver's right, in the center of the console replacing the audio/navigation unit, is an integrated LG touch-screen tablet (while the screen on the device was washed out in the bright daylight, the unit arrives complete with an electronic version of "Punch Buggy" designed to save your shoulders from bruising). Centrally located at the top of the dashboard are the digital outside temperature gauge and a state-of-charge display (bar graphs and digital numbers). All other controls, from the headlights to the blinkers, are rather conventional.
An integrated LG touch-screen tablet replaces the audio/navigation unit.
The start button activates the drive system (Volkswagen calls the complete electric drive unit "Blue-e-Motion"), which simultaneously powers everything up and starts the light show – yes, the light show. The interior is first immersed in a white light, followed by a blue light. The pulse, for lack of a better description, emanates with a small dash on the instrument cluster. It eventually works its way around the cabin as a thin (one millimeter wide) beam at shoulder height moving across the dashboard and door panels. Although it was nearly impossible to see in stark daylight, it was visible while we filmed our Short Cut video.
The Bugster's transmission (PRNDB) has two different forward drive modes. In "D" the EV acts much like a traditional vehicle. This means it coasts well, and there is limited regenerative braking. However, when placed in "B" mode the regenerative braking is much stronger and the vehicle quickly slows when the driver's foot leaves the accelerator pedal (this mode significantly extends the driving range). For our slow drive, only the "D" mode was software-enabled.
Unlike most prototypes, the E-Bugster drove very well on the asphalt roadway.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed silently cruising around the grounds in the concept. Unlike most prototypes, which are quite rickety as they only need to resemble something cool under show lights, the E-Bugster drove very well on the asphalt roadway. The steering was solid, the tires never rubbed the bodywork even in tight turns and the chassis didn't squeak. The multi-piston brakes (stolen from an Audi TT-RS) even had a chance to demonstrate their strength when we exceeded the 30 km/h speed coasting down the long hill – we took a scolding from our Volkswagen passenger in the process.
With our short drive completed, the tone of the conversation changed as the public relations team started to ask us the questions – they had a friendly ulterior motive. The inquisitive interrogation reminded us of our Audi TT-RS preview, more than two years earlier, when the Germans teased us with a car and asked us if we thought there was a domestic market for it (we all know how that ended, as the 2012 Audi TT-RS rolled onto our shores late last year).
Is there room in the Volkswagen lineup for a sharply sculpted Beetle speedster?
So, what if Volkswagen's board of directors gave a Beetle Speedster variant a green light? Theoretically, its shape would nearly mirror that of the E-Bugster, right down to the chopped windshield and two-passenger cabin. As for power, we'd expect nothing less than a turbocharged 2.0-liter mated to a six-speed manual or DCT. Realizing that the automaker is already offering a Beetle, Beetle Turbo, Beetle TDI and Beetle R, is there room in the Volkswagen lineup for a sharply sculpted Beetle speedster with limited passenger room... but plenty of unique style?