It’s somewhat amusing that although the United States has had a flourishing automobile industry for the past century, one of the cars that’s most readily associated with 1960s Americana is the German-conceived Volkswagen Beetle.
Synonymous with the flower-power generation – right down to the porcelain blumenvasen (flower vase) that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille or windscreen – the simple, durable and quirky Beetle was in sync with the unpretentious, freewheeling and rebellious spirit of the era.
If ever a car had almost human-like qualities, the Beetle was it. With its big, round eyes, nose-mimicking bonnet handle and smiley mouth, there’s something instantly endearing about the “Dak Dak” – a nickname earned by virtue of the staccato beat of its air-cooled boxer engine slung behind the rear axle. Little wonder it fitted in so well into the Disney-created character of Herbie the Love Bug, a 1963 Beetle with a mind of its own and capable of driving itself.
Apart from being immortalised in a half-dozen Disney pictures, the original Beetle carved its name into the real-world automotive annals by virtue of having the longest production run of any car in history – from 1938 to 2003 – with more than 21 million produced before it was finally mothballed.
Well, it wasn’t entirely laid to rest, as Volkswagen’s decision to ensure continuity of nameplate via the “new Beetle” means I still have the opportunity to indulge in an American Beetle safari of my own. Actually, not quite on my own, as I’ll be accompanied by five other Middle East motoring hacks.
Our throng has just landed in New York, just as the VW emissions scandal breaks, and over the next two days, we’ll be traversing some of the most scenic routes in the north-eastern corner of the US in the latest-gen Beetle Cabriolet. The newbie, which shouldn’t be directly implicated in the aforementioned controversy, is set to make its Middle East debut at November’s Dubai International Motor Show. Although exact local pricing and specs are yet to be confirmed, it’s likely the drop-top Bug will start at about Dh130,000.
Let’s face it, the first new Beetle that debuted in 1998 had a sort of cutesy puppy-dog appeal to it, but its tiptoe stance and somewhat cartoonish profile meant its sales dwindled once the initial novelty had worn off. Cue the revamped mk2 model, with far better resolved proportions and sharper dynamics.
Given that we’re in the good ol’ US of A, it’s entirely fitting that the three cars in our Beetle Cabriolet convoy are red, white and blue respectively. Parked nose to tail outside our hotel, they look far more purposeful than the previous-generation car, thanks to a longer, wider stance and flatter, lower roofline that makes for a much sportier profile. Our test car also benefits from sitting on chunky 19-inch alloys shod with low-profile tyres that fill out the pumped guards nicely.
The beefier looks are backed up by substance, as nestling under the snout (the engine migrated to the front in the VW Golf-derived new Beetle) is a 2.0L, four-cylinder turbo power plant. It’s the same unit that powered the last-gen Golf GTI, and it’s good for 210bhp and 280Nm, so this Beetle is clearly no shrinking violet, despite its flower-power visual links.
The Cabriolet won’t be one of the brand’s volume sellers in our market, but it still has a key role to play in expanding VW’s lifestyle portfolio. You could think of it as a less-costly rival to the Mini Cooper S Convertible, or a much cheaper alternative to the Audi TT Roadster, with which it shares a few components.
Our planned route for the next two days is to make our way out of the bustling confines of the Big Apple and head north through Connecticut and into Massachusetts for an overnight stop in Provincetown, a quaint picture-postcard village that attracts, among others, monied New Yorkers for their summer holidays. The end destination is Boston, where many of the most significant moments in American history took place.
Escaping the clutches of morning traffic in Manhattan proves tedious, and a subsequent navigational error means we have to take an unplanned detour through some of the dodgiest parts of the Bronx. Consequently, it’s a relief when we finally get onto the freeway that will take us out of New York State and into Connecticut. Incidentally, the name of the latter state has nothing to do with “connecting” anything. Rather, it’s an Anglicised adaptation of “Quinnehtukqut”, which is a Mohegan Indian word for “Long River Place” or “Beside the Long Tidal River”.
Thanks to unseasonably warm weather for late September, we lower the soft top, an operation that can be achieved in 9.5 seconds at the push of a button. You can do this at speeds of up to 50kph, so there’s no need to pull over to the side of the road. That’s quite handy, especially if you happen to be cruising through the Bronx at the time.
The 2.0L turbo engine gives the Beetle decently long legs on the freeway, and there are sufficient reserves of torque to comfortably dispense with slow-moving traffic. Unfortunately, our test car doesn’t have the wind-deflector screen that some of the other Beetles in our convoy are equipped with, but even so, the buffeting isn’t excessive – even at motorway speeds.
In any case, we drown out much of the wind roar by cranking up the excellent Fender stereo. Given that the Beetle is an overtly retro-inspired car, it seems vaguely appropriate to select a radio station that pumps out nothing but hits from the 1980s. The Doors and The Rolling Stones might be more fitting in this car, but we’re happy to make do with Def Leppard, Whitesnake and even a bit of Michael Jackson.
The farther north we head, the better the scenery gets, with lush green forests juxtaposing nicely with the odd glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean along the way. Our ragtop Beetle doesn’t look too bad in these environs, either. Its pearl-white paintwork ideally complements the 19-inch “Tornado” wheels, and the Cabriolet manages to be visually striking without being too showy. And unlike some softtops that look goofy with the roof up, the VeeDub manages to retain its street cred even with the lid in place.
We eventually cross the state border into Massachusetts, then make our way up to the tip of Cape Cod, which on the map resembles the curled arm of someone flexing their bicep. At the tip of the cape lies Provincetown, a scenic little village that in the past was a haven for hippies, painters and other artistic types – fitting again for the “flower power” Beetle. Nowadays, Provincetown is more of a tourist trap, and its population swells from about 3,000 residents to 60,000 during the peak summer months.
The following morning, the plan is to get some decent photography of our Beetle convoy, then press on towards Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower allegedly first set foot in America back in 1620.
Given that it’s a tad chilly, my co-driver and put up the soft-top, which, apart from keeping us sheltered from the elements, also helps turn our attention to our immediate surrounds within the cabin of the car. There’s not a whole lot to fault here either, thanks to attractive use of piano-black trim, along with a carbon-fibre-mimicking finish on the dashboard.
A notable omission in the latest Beetle is the aforementioned flower vase, but I’d imagine not too many buyers will miss it. There are still two gloveboxes – an upper one and a lower one – and the elasticised door pockets are also a nice design feature. The large-diameter steering wheel harks back to the era of the original Beetle, and combined with a less-direct steering ratio, it makes for a more-relaxed feel than you’d get in the likes of the Golf GTi and Scirocco. Although not as sharp a driving tool as the Golf GTI, the Cabrio still offers enough dynamism to entertain press-on motorists, and the gruff exhaust note is an aural delight.
There’s more body roll and less grip than you’d get in a GTI, but the chassis is well-tied-down nonetheless, and the steering-mounted shift paddles for the six-speed DSG transmission enable you to keep the turbo engine on the boil across twisty sections of tarmac.
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many sinuous roads on our route today, so after a couple of hours of freeway schlepping, we reach Plymouth Rock, an idyllic spot that lies within the aptly named Pilgrim Memorial State Park. We park the Beetle in the first available spot and make our way to “the rock”, which looks a tad underwhelming compared to the magnificent structure with Greek-style columns that enclose it.
Whether or not it’s actually true that Plymouth Rock was the first landing spot of the Pilgrims, it makes for a good story. Moored nearby, the Mayflower II – a replica of the original Mayflower – is also well worth a look.
Having got a feel for the picturesque town, we mount up and press on towards our final destination of Boston. Those who are really up with US history may be aware that many of the crucial events of the American Revolution – the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the Siege of Boston, and many others – occurred in or near Boston.
We make the most of our hours in Boston, taking in a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park on the evening of our arrival. We do our best to get into the local spirit at the game, as each of us scoffs down the obligatory hot dog and bucket of soda.
It’s a fitting end to our crammed two-day experience of all things American, with the Beetle Cabriolet doing its bit to enhance the journey. It might trade unashamedly on the quirky image of its air-cooled forefather, but the latest ragtop offers enough substance and merit in its own right to make it a worthy purchase.
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