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First drive: Beetle Cabrio opens up summer fun

Cruising in Miami: The Beetle Cabriolet was launched in southern Florida, where it is sure to be a big hit.

The drop-top New Beetle has finally been revealed and our first drive reveals it's been worth the wait

22 Oct 2002


THE New Beetle Cabriolet has been a long time coming, but there was never really any doubt that it would make it into production.

If Volkswagen was to stay true to the original Beetle, there just had to be a soft-top version, one that would pay homage to the first Beetle convertible from 1949.

While the New Beetle Cabriolet will not make its official world debut until the Detroit motor show in January, the car has been previewed to the world's motoring media in a lavish launch held in and around Miami, Florida - the ideal location, according to Volkswagen, to showcase the NBC as a lifestyle car designed for fun in the sun.

The car is due to go on sale in the US following its show appearance, with a European launch a few months later and an Australian release in the third quarter of 2003.

Initial sales in Australia are likely to be slow given the mid-winter scheduling, but Volkswagen Group Australia still expects to sell around 300 examples during the first year - which clearly removes any chance of it being a volume player in the sports car/soft top field - as part of total New Beetle sales of around 900 units.

VGA hopes to keep pricing below $40,000 but a more likely scenario will see it sit in the $40,000-$45,000 bracket.

Effectively a successor to the discontinued Golf Cabriolet, only one New Beetle Cabriolet model will be offered in Australia at launch. It will be powered by the volume-selling New Beetle's 85kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine matched to either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

The six auto is new and making its first appearance in the cabrio, with VW claiming to be the first manufacturer in the world to offer a front transverse-mounted six-speed auto in this segment.

The adaptive transmission also features a Tiptronic-style manual-shift function as well as a sports mode, which will hold onto each gear longer, prompt quicker downchanges and provide a lockout of top gear.

Despite looking just like a New Beetle minus its metal roof, there is quite a bit more to the cabrio design than first appears to be the case.

Body structure reinforcements have been made in the A-pillar, B-pillar, door and rear seat crossmember areas to counter the lack of a fixed roof.

As a result, kerb weight has increased by between 90-120kg - depending on the transmission selected - over the equivalent hatchback model, which naturally impacts on performance with no additional engine power to call on.

The fabric roof - fitted with a glass rear window - follows the same arc as its hatchback stablemate, but it is nominally (4mm) taller.

When down (open) it hangs out over the rear of the car just like the original Beetle convertible, although it sits considerably lower due to a modern and elaborate Z-folding system.

Australian-spec cars will be fitted with the high-grade electric roof as standard, but a full manual system will be standard in some markets.

The roof still has to be disengaged from the windscreen header rail manually, but from there an electric motor takes over to lower the roof in about 13 seconds.

Special flaps behind the B-pillar open to allow the roof arms and linkages to lift when raising the hood or retract when lowering it, with the roof and all its components operated by the single switch located beside the handbrake.

Other changes include the conventional door lock buttons ditched in favour of LEDs, which are aimed at improving vehicle security when parked with the roof open.

The release for the front seat backs has been redesigned to make entry/exit easier for rear seat passengers, while the centre armrest now has a lockable storage compartment and a main electric window switch has been added to enable all four windows to be raised or lowered at once.

In the absence of a full metal roof, rollover protection is provided by the reinforced windscreen frame at the front and a pop-up system a the rear - the rear head restraints shoot up a maximum of 265mm within 0.25 seconds to protect cabin occupants in the event of a crash.

Even with the roof closed (up), the spring-loaded rollover system will still deploy against the soft-top.

Other standard features on local cars will include dual front and front side airbags, air-conditioning, leather upholstery, remote central locking, electric mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, front foglights and a CD player.

Plus there's some new pastel paint colours such as Aquarius Blue, Mellow Yellow and Harvest Moon - just what you need to be part of the Miami Vice scene - although not all will be available in Australia.


THE New Beetle hatch is by no means one of the most practical cars on the market.

The curved nature of the entire exterior design has a marked impact on both rear seat accommodation - particularly headroom - and luggage space, as well as the unusual driving position from almost behind the mid-point of the vehicle.

That said, you would expect a soft-top version to suffer even more in the way of impracticalities.

And while it does in some respects - less rear legroom and even less boot space so as to accommodate the roof system - it is hard to shake the feeling that the New Beetle actually works better and makes more sense as a soft-top.

Volkswagen seems to agree, as the company believes the NBC will attain a conquest rate of 70 per cent over its hatchback counterpart, with up to 50 per cent of buyers moving into a roofless model for the first time.

Available rear legroom when seated behind tall drivers and front passengers and the upright backrests are the only things that will impinge on real comfort for four people.

The huge windscreen and curved A-pillars provide real protection for the cabin, as it is less bothered by wind buffeting at open road speeds than many of its contemporaries, even with all the windows down.

The roof tonneau cover, which protects the roof itself when down (open), is simple to use courtesy of an absence of the press studs still found on many convertibles - so long as you apply pressure to the right spot on the corner to enable the two clips to clasp shut. This point one of the Australian journalists found out the hard way while trying in vain to properly attach the clips on the side of a busy freeway.

Even all of your weight in the wrong spot does little to help the process! Not a great deal could be learnt about how the NBC actually drives due to the nature of the drive program.

Southern Florida's arrow-straight expressways and turnpikes offered little in the way of challenging roads on which to test the structural rigidity of the roofless design, but it did seem to be about on a par with the Astra Convertible for scuttle shake or lack of it - pretty good in other words, although we'll reserve final judgment until we drive the car on Australian roads.

Engine performance is nothing startling given the New Beetle hatchback's 2.0-litre engine as a starting point - and then add to the equation a significant weight increase.

It's fine for cruising the boulevards, which is no doubt what this car will spend most of its time doing in places like Queensland's coast and Sydney's northern beaches, but the Beetle turbo engine would be a much better fit to give the cabrio some real acceleration and overtaking urge.

But the new six-speed auto is a substantial step forward over the existing four-speed unit in the New Beetle hatchback.

It is both smart (adaptive traits) and smooth, and also covers all bases with manual and sport modes. Like many other similar transmissions, it will upchange automatically at redline in manual mode, as well as kickdown, but it does not recover to the original selected gear like the Mercedes-Benz Tipshift transmission does.

Overall, Volkswagen should have a winner on its hands with the NBC, if not in Australia to any great extent, certainly in the US where the hatchback model has already reached cult status.

Given it is just as quiet and well insulated as the hardtop hatchback version, there are not too many reasons for choosing its fixed roof counterpart unless the rear seat and boot space issues pose real problems for you - and they are actually issues in both models anyway.

The New Beetle Cabriolet has the making of next year's must-have super summer fun cruiser, with its cute retro looks sure to attract buyers from rival camps.

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