Reviews

2003 VW Beetle Cabrio Road Test

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Category:$20,000 to $25,000 Compact Convertible
Who should buy this car:A fun-loving person who wouldn’t mind driving a happy face.
Comparable cars in this class:Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder

Cute as a Topless Bug

It’s new for 2003, a new New Beetle from Volkswagen that offers top-down fun and Volkswagen reliability for a bit over $20,000.

The new convertible replaces the Golf-based ragtop. Cuddly and round like a cheerful little bubble, the only straight line in sight is the shift lever. The well-known arched roofline silhouette of the New Beetle is duplicated here in a soft top whose familiar profile yields enough headroom for Abe Lincoln and his top hat, even in the rear seats. But backseat hip and shoulder room suffer because of the intrusion of the hidden mechanism for the folding top.

All the modifications to the original Beetle bod look natural, not grafted. When converting a coupe to a soft-top, you cant leave ragged metal where you cut off the roof. And Karmann didn’t. Superb coachwork from this experienced custom body maker is evident everywhere. The whole auto is a superb example of how to build a vehicle tight and right. It even has a roll bar that automatically deploys to protect occupants in the unlikely event of a rollover accident.

Solid Machine, Soft Springs

This is one solid machine. There were no shakes nor squeaks from the body structure.

Steering was precise and firm, the ride comfortable and softly sprung. The soft springing showed whenever we hit a bump or an early springtime pothole. Although these jolts were soaked up just fine, the bug bounced and teetered. And in hard turns, there was lots of body tilt. In the Vee Dubs favor, however, I have to say that this Jell-O action never represented a danger.

The front-wheel drive and traction control got us through some messy, muddy ski-area parking lots. The 115-horse motor (a 150-hp turbo is a two-grand, extra-cost option) pulled well enough to stay with traffic on I-80 and had enough zip left at (unprintable) speed to still accelerate in top gear. Our test car had the standard 5-speed manual. Shifting and clutching could hardly be lighter, but the gear ratios could be closer because when upshifting, engine revs fell a disturbing amount between gears. For those who measure performance by 0-60 times: starting from idle took 11 seconds flat; dropping the clutch at 3500 rpm cut that to 10.1 seconds.

The power soft top went up and down so easily and quickly that we never hesitated to indulge in al fresco motoring, even for a quick trip to the store. When the top was up, the noise level was reasonable except for some wind whistling. It was completely weathertight, so much so that the windows automatically are programmed to lower a fraction whenever the doors are opened and raise a fraction for full sealing when the doors are closed. On chilly-morning commuting runs, the heater allowed for open-air driving at highway speeds.

Lift the narrow trunk lid only to find an even smaller porthole for access. The trunk will hold a few duffel bags but it’s difficult to fit them through the narrow opening, unlike the more commodious trunk of the hard-topped Beetle. Like a smaller back seat, that’s the price you pay to have a space for the mechanicals of the soft top to live. There’s a glow-in-the-dark escape handle in the trunk, but that feature is completely useless because anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in the trunk would have had to be dismembered first in order to fit.

Thoughtful features:

A heated rear window when some convertibles don’t even have glass. This one folds in neatly with the top and its wired. There is also a switch to lower or raise all side glass at once. Since there are no side pillars between the front and back windows, lowering the four windows offers a nice wide-angle view and an almost-convertible feeling with the top up. The steering wheel telescopes as well as tilts The Monsoon sound system is among the best. Yes, it can be cranked to the point of pain and still not distort. That’s why we have highways.

Seat adjustments were manual, but quick, and they’ll never short out. The two drivers with a nine-inch height difference appreciated the light-touch ratcheting seat-height adjusters. And speaking of space utilization, the vast flat expanse between dashboard and windshield will hold four pizza boxes. Try it. And don’t forget the defroster to keep the cheese bubbling hot.

Inconveniences:

Horrendous and dangerous blind spot at rear quarter with top up. Bad blind spot directly to the rear when the top is down and folded above the trunk. When you’ve dropped your driving glasses at night, there’s nothing darker than a black interior topped with a dark gray headliner…and no lighting other than the dim light under the inside rearview. Lighting is nonexistent for the poor inhabitants of the cave behind the front seats even though there’s room in the door panels and gunwales for courtesy lights. Listen up, VW: Dont leave your paying customers in the dark. Consumer warning: The cutesy bud vase to the right of the steering wheel is a unique and charming touch, but our daffodil died a horrible death after the Bug had been parked in the sun for several hours with windows and top up.

Base price of the convertible is $21, 850. Add $900 for leather interior and heated seats, $325 for the Monsoon AM/FM/CD changer, and $575 (!) destination charge to bring the total to about $24,000. There’s a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty, 5/60 powertrain warranty, and 4/50 roadside service plan. Mileage as estimated by EPA: 28 highway/22 city.

Specifications

2003 Volkswagen Beetle Cabrio

Engine Type2.0-liter 4 Cyl.  Single overhead camshaft, 8 valve
Horsepower115 @ 5400 RPM
Torque125 @ 3200 RPM
Fuel RecommendedRegular Unleaded.
Transmission (Std.)
Transmission (Opt.)
5-Speed Manual
Electronically controlled 6-speed Shiftable Automatic
Drive LayoutTransverse Engine, Front Wheel Drive
TiresP205/55 R 16H all-season, steel-belted radials
Overall Length161.1″
Wheelbase98.8″
Width67.9″
Turning Diameter35.8 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight3075  lbs.
Fuel Tank14.5 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon (5-speed)
Miles Per Gallon (Auto.)
EPA  city 24 mpg, hwy 30 mpg
EPA  city 22 mpg, hwy 29 mpg
Acceleration 0 to 6010.1 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$21,850

Standard Equipment

(Partial List)

Major Available Options

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Author

Joel Levin

Automotive Expert

Joel is on the Board of the International Motor Press Association and is an only vice president of the Madison Avenue Sports Car Driving and Chowder Society. He also he runs an advertising/marketing/PR consultancy full-time to supplement his journalistic activities.

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