Want proof that diesel is finally taking hold in North America? Look no further than this 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. For a while now, it's become easier to understand why more automakers are opting to pair their large-volume models with diesel, but it's only when a given technology or feature starts to infiltrate the industry's smaller segments that we can argue that something has truly taken hold. After an agonizingly slow buildup, we're prepared to say that the high-mileage fuel has finally come of age here, and the evidence is right under this VW's bulbous hood.
Consider this: Diesel has become so viable that it's trickled down to this car, a niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche model. Niche number one? The Beetle is a retro-styled spinoff of VW's volume hatchback, the Golf. Niche number two? It's a convertible. It isn't until we get to niche number three that we even discuss its oil-burning nature. In fact, if you want to get even more stratified, the Tornado Red tester seen before you has a manual transmission, itself a lamentably narrow sliver of the marketplace. Yes, the outgoing New Beetle was offered here with TDI power, but its convertible variant never was. We've watched for years as Europe has played host to a whole mess of diesel droptops, but we simply can't remember the last time one was offered here.
That Volkswagen is bringing this triple-specific model to its North American dealers not only says a lot about the confidence it has in its TDI powertrains, it also says something about the company's relentless drive for volume, a fever pitch that seemingly cannot abide any white space left unfulfilled.
We've seen dodgy nichemobiles in the past – hell, the automotive landscape is littered with them – particularly convertibles. Thankfully, this Beetle is something of a sweetheart, with an easy charm and a flexible, efficient heart that just happens to burn oil.
Of course, for the less adventuresome, VW will happily sell you a gasoline-fed Beetle Convertible motivated by its enduring 2.5-liter five-cylinder with 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, or its 2.0-liter turbocharged TSI four with 200 hp and 207 lb-ft. Both are reasonable alternatives – the 2.5 is a lazy revver with a funky soundtrack and a standard automatic, but it makes for a perfectly serviceable (if uninspiring) cruiser, and the 2.0T delivers additional fun thanks to its added power, flatter torque curve, sport suspension and manual or dual-clutch gearbox ($1,100) choices. But despite monumental dynamic improvements over their New Beetle predecessors, neither model is really likely to make an enthusiast's shopping list.
The addition of diesel motivation really helps this car come into its own.
Truthfully, even with a heaping 236 lb-ft dollop of torque and 140 horses, this 2.0-liter TDI isn't going to set the performance world on fire. But it really doesn't have to – that's not the Beetle's primary mission in life. And paradoxically, the addition of diesel motivation really helps this car come into its own. For one, it's well in line with the bubble-body's offbeat and frugal hippy ethos. For another, its peak torque chips in from just 1,750 rpm to readily facilitate the sort of leisurely, low-rev open-air cruising that the lidless Beetle just begs for.
We were admittedly concerned that clatter from the TDI might be off-putting in a model with no roof, but the engine is so well behaved that passengers probably won't even notice that your ride gets fuel from those other pumps. The TDI Beetle's method of internal combustion is generally only noticeable if you're standing next to it at idle, or from inside when pulling away from a stop light with the top down. Even then, it's only a momentary distraction, one not much more unpleasant than the base 2.5's low-rev acoustic wobble. Oh, if you really want to pile on the revs, you'll hear more of the engine, but with markedly better torque than either of the range's two gas-powered offerings, you won't need to dip into the throttle deeply as often, let alone depress the easily modulated clutch.
41 mpg highway is the best efficiency figure you can get in a convertible.
In addition to the TDI's torque windfall, its primary benefit is a matter of economy. The EPA rates this manual transmission model at 28 miles per gallon city and a whopping 41 mpg highway, the latter being the best efficiency figure you can get in a convertible. If you're the shiftless sort, VW will happily sell you a DSG dual-clutch example with 28 city and 38 hwy ratings, but we liked out tester's six-speed self-stirrer just fine, and our drive loops emanating from around hilly Santa Monica suggest the Fed's fuel economy figures will be easy to attain.
We'd be remiss if we didn't note that we never really warmed to piloting its predecessor, the New Beetle – its cartoonish proportions made for a strangely unrewarding driving experience. The car's oversized, half-moon greenhouse offered tremendous headroom, but also placed the windshield way out front like a minivan, seemingly well ahead of the driver's feet. This made the New Beetle somewhat dimensionally tough to grasp, hurting the driver's confidence when placing it in aggressive corners. But there's no such problem here – like its hardtop counterpart, the new model now incorporates a flatter roofline and repositioned windscreen that not only gives the VW more traditional proportions top-up or top-down, it helps the driver feel more in control behind the wheel.
Aiding that new sensation is the Beetle's chassis, which is longer, lower and wider than its predecessor, not to mention stiffer – VW officials tell us that key reinforcements have been made all over, including the A-pillars and front roof crossmembers, along with the lower bodysides and between the B-posts. Altogether, the changes account for a 20-percent increase in rigidity, though there's a weight penalty. As a result of those strengthening measures and the one-touch power top mechanism, curb weights start at just over 3,200 pounds, representing a 220-pound increase. The result is worth it, though, at least over the LA Basin's well-tended roads riding on 17-inch rubber. The Beetle Convertible delivers a smooth ride with almost no perceptible cowl or steering column shake. There's also surprisingly eager turn-in thanks to the adeptly tuned front strut and rear multilink suspension and new electric power steering (the base 2.5 model sticks with hydraulic assist, but it's no more or less engaging). The 2.0T model receives an XDS electric limited-slip differential, inch-larger rubber and a bigger front antiroll bar – all of which make it the better handler – but the truth is that all models are plenty enjoyable for the type of driving this car character engenders.
Curb weights start at just over 3,200 pounds, a 220-pound increase.
As with the hardtop model, the Beetle's interior is fine work for the money, with genuine flair and a surprising amount of utility thanks to the new generation's larger dimensions. There's none of the decontented, built-to-a-price feel that mars the current Jetta – the cabin is notable for its robust switchgear and nice textures, along with its more supportive seats. Things can get predictably Germanic dour if opting for a black interior, but there are other choices available, including the painted body-color accents on our tester. We'd probably forego the optional navigation system, as the touchscreen is small and the menu logic not our favorite.
Thankfully, there's plenty of room up front for drivers of all statures, and the rear seats can actually a pair of grown adults surprisingly well, though the rear seatback is a bit upright. The latter split and fold to offer a decent-sized pass-through to the trunk, which has grown to 7.1 cubic-feet, a major improvement over the outgoing model's miserly 5.0 cubes. Behind the rear headrests is a new pyrotechnic pop-up roll bar system, a welcome bit of safety equipment not often seen on convertibles of this price point.
The top does a nice job sealing off the outside world – this is a true four-season car.
The three-layer top feels reassuringly stout, opening in 9.5 seconds and closing in 11 at speeds up to 31 mph, and it does a nice job sealing off the outside world when the weather isn't cooperative – this is a true four-season car. Just like it always has, the top furls up in a pram-like heap behind the rear headrests, but the stack is low enough that it doesn't compromise the driver's rear view – that demerit is reserved for the rear headrests, which really ought to be shingle-style for visibility's sake.
Is the Beetle Convertible for you? That probably depends on your reaction to its styling as much as anything else. The new generation is far more masculine and purposeful than its predecessor, a fact underscored by its growing male ownership. While the New Beetle's pink slips went out to just 28-percent men, the 2012-present model is trending at 40 percent – 50 percent on turbo models. Regardless of one's sex, buyers can look forward to better standard equipment levels, interior space and fuel economy than its chief rival, the Mini Cooper Convertible.
Incidentally, VW is offering a trio of limited edition launch models with decade-themed motifs – '50s, '60s, and '70s. The latter is our favorite, with its rich Toffee Brown Metallic paint with beige top and matching leatherette seating surfaces, but sadly, it's only available with the base 2.5-liter.
VW is offering a trio of limited edition launch models with decade-themed motifs – '50s, '60s, and '70s.