In front of a Santa Monica beachfront hotel, the headquarters for the launch of the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible, sat a shiny new red cabrio, completely upstaged by an original two-toned 1952 model. This symbolized VW's entire presence at the L.A. Auto Show last week. VW spokespeople kept claiming that the Beetle wasn't "about retro," but the evidence showed a different narrative; the Beetle, more than any contemporary car except perhaps the Ford Mustang, counts on nostalgia for sales. At the launch event, the company made a big deal of introducing three special-edition cars, each designed to invoke the spirit of a different decade: The '50s, '60s, and '70s, with only 650 having been built combined. Even though they were basically no more than nostalgic jewel boxes, they got a lot of interest. Beetles rarely bring to mind the present day.
First, though, a brief word from the contemporary Beetle convertible, which marks the first time that the third-generation Beetle has taken down the top. In its own right, this cabrio is quite a triumph of design, longer, lower, and sleeker than previous models, with exterior colors melding beautifully into interior dash and door accents. If you buy a yellow car, then you get a yellow car, inside, outside and all around. It's like driving a piece of beautifully overripe fruit.
In terms of mechanics, the convertible is exactly the same as the new hard top Beetle coupe. It's not particularly fast, but it handles city driving and light highway work efficiently enough. A Turbo edition, retailing at a few thousand more than the 2.5-liter standard engine, features a nicely stiff suspension and a little extra spring, and also has a nifty racing-design motif in the upper-reaching interior trim packages. A TDI 2.0 Diesel model handles more or less the same as the conventional one, but gets up to 41 mpg. It delivers everything you might expect from a Beetle.
Of course, they also convert, and it takes a lot less work than it once did. The top goes up in less than 10 seconds and down in about 11, with no effort beyond pushing a button. I didn't get to enjoy the full convertible experience, because it rained on my drive day. But we put down the top from time to time anyway. There's a wind shear in back and a large-sloping front windshield, so we barely even got damp, as though there were a protective force field over the car. In serious rain, this wouldn't work, but you can still go topless in the mist, so to speak.
But drive day belonged to the nostalgia mobiles. My partner and I started in the 1950s edition, all black with cool-looking chrome "heritage" wheel rims. Inside, the seats were sedate tan leather. As we drove it up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu, it felt like we were living in a very specific interpretation of the '50s, not an American suburban tail-finned nightmare, but something a little more businesslike and actuarial. Volkswagen has boldly styled this edition to make it feel like the kind of car Orson Welles would have driven through postwar Europe in "The Third Man."
The '60s edition is a totally different experience, with a fabulous "denim" blue paint job and a gorgeous blue and tan leather interior. It also provides a much stronger drive, only coming in the 200-hp turbo edition. While undeniably lovely to look at and super-fun, the model also feels like the automotive equivalent of a hotel room decorated with vintage rock-n-roll posters. The '60s edition is supposed to evoke a more freewheeling countercultural time, but when the median Beetle customer clocks in at 51 years old with a median income of $125,000, it's actually appealing more to a soon-to-retire ex-hippie investment banker, or record-company executive with a quasi-countercultural backstory. It's a triumph of late-boomer nostalgia engineering.
The '70s edition, like the time that spawned it, struggles a little with its identity. For an automotive decade identified more with gas rationing, recalls and rust than with styling, a 1970s nostalgia vehicle is kind of a tough sell, which is probably why VW only made 100 of them. The car is very brown, on the inside and out. VW went for a kind of "executive office" look, minus the wood paneling and the pervasive smell of cigarette smoke. This was probably the only choice available to them, given that the '70s tend to be otherwise remembered as a time of serial killers and urban decay.
Our little drive in the '70s edition matched the decade's malaise. The fog descended hard on the hills of Malibu after lunch, leaving almost no visibility, not the ideal circumstance in which to find oneself driving a tiny 170-hp car up and down an extremely windy canyon road, much of it guard-rail free. My drive partner was constantly complaining about a strange rattling sound from his side of the car. He guessed that the window seal with the convertible top, which we had up, wasn't locking completely. I wasn't sure myself. Regardless, it got noisy in there.
To add to this menacing vibe, I turned on the "'70's on 7" XM station, which meant I had to try to conquer this very tough road while listening to John Denver, the Bay City Rollers, and that song about how "love grows where my Rosemary goes." As much as I desperately wanted to, I couldn't change the station to an equally old-school funk jam, because any wrong twitch of my wrist would have sent us to certain death. My drive partner didn't seem to care much about music, and was too busy fiddling with the window seal, so I suffered through a drive mix where Rhiannon was probably the best song. We took a short break at a photo point. In my notebook I wrote, "Please help me."
That '70s-themed mobile wasn't the most pleasant driving experience I'd ever had—you don't really want to be powering a Beetle, even a nifty, perfectly safe new one, in such circumstances--but it was certainly one of the most all-encompassing. It takes a special kind of design skill to remind people exactly why the '70s sucked. I was very grateful to drive back to our ultra-modern home base in the 1950s edition car. The world was so much simpler then.
2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible
|ENGINES||2.5-liter 5-cyl.; 2-liter turbo; 2-liter turbo diesel|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed automatic; 6-speed manual|
|POWER||170 hp (2.5L); 200 hp (2L); 140 hp (diesel)|
|TORQUE||177 ft.-lbs.; 207 ft.-lbs.; 236 ft.-lbs.|
|0-60 MPH||7.5 seconds (2-liter turbo)- 9.2 sec. (diesel)|
|EMISSIONS||5.2 tons CO2/yr (diesel); 6.1 tons (gas)|
|MILEAGE||21/27 mpg (2.5L); 21/29 (2L); 28/41 (diesel)|
|CONS||Not every era needs reliving|
|PROS||Modern fun for the aging boomer in all of us|