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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The VW "Dune" Beetle is just about the most fun you can have for under $30,000


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(Matthew DeBord/BI) Adorable fun. You have to be versed in VW Bug lore to fully appreciate the 2016 "Dune" Beetle.

Ever since Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle in the late 1990s, the adorable reboot has struggled to shake off the label – sexist as it may be – that it is a woman's car.

(Okay, that's not exactly how its described. "Chick car" is the term of art in the unevolved quarters of the auto press.)

Nobody ever said that about the original Beetle — produced from the 1940s until the late 1970s in much of the world, including the US, and in Mexico until the mid-2000s, but for some reason the contemporary American male is only capable of driving used Hummers or muscle rides with more than 500 horsepower. Or BMW 3-Series, thing but Bugs.

For the 2012 model year, VW moved away from the first New Beetle design with a more aggressive bodystyle that it's stuck with ever since. The move hasn't really brought the dudes in droves.
So VW went back to the archives and created a sort of two-door quasi-offroader, based on a legendary Bug modification from the 1960s.
It was called the "Baja Bug," and it was a Beetle with big, fat tires that was lifted so that it could take to the California dessert a raise a little hell in the Summer of Love.

Baja Bug


(Devkotlan Photography/Wikimedia Commons) The Baja Bug in action.
The revived Baja Big loses, obviously, the old air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and gets a tasty 1.8L turbo four-cylinder, making 170 horsepower.
Front-wheel drive and an abundance of modern amenities, ranging from a lift-away sunroof to Apple CarPlay to Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio piped through a fantastic Fender audio system. The Dune Beetle is also raised and widened slightly, and our $26,760 test car came with a "sandstorm yellow metallic" paint job, "Dune" branding, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with yellow topstitching, a nifty hidden backing camera, and a jazzy spoiler.

VW Dune Skitch


(Matthew DeBord/BI) A little higher, a little wider.
If you've gotten this far, you probably think this all sounds incredibly goofy. Who in the world would want a New Beetle, designed for bopping around town and maybe for short road trips, that evokes a zany offroad contraption from as time when young folks all wanted dune buggies when they grew up?
I'm not sure, really, but I had tons of fun in the Dune Beetle. As it turns out, in all my years writing about cars, I'd never sampled the New Beetle. I had experienced the original Bug, but that was back in high school. The New Beetle was a real lacuna —a hole in my background.
The old Bug was jittery, uncomfortable, and kinda loud. The New Beetle is none of those things. In fact, it's a relatively solid, polished performer. The engine is plenty powerful and the handling is quite crisp and precise. The overall shape of the vehicle means that it's fairly roomy, with ample seating for four, although the back seat could be cramped for adults and teenagers. And we are talking about a two-door here. Getting in and out of the back seat is awkward. But the cargo space under the hatch is considerable.

VW Dune Beetle


(Matthew DeBord/BI) It's gold on the inside. too.
Maybe people have gotten used to the New Beetle (and after a decade and half, they should've), but the Dune Beetle garnered all manner of grins, questions, and thumbs-ups from other drivers and folks who strolled by my driveway. The golden yellowy mustard color, which also shows up inside the car, was especially pleasing.
"Is that your GOLD Beetle?" I was frequently asked.
Over the week that I tested the car, I never failed to look forward to hopping in. The fuel economy was admirable (25 city/34 highway/28 combined) given the zesty turbocharged motor, and my daughter and I richly enjoyed blasting everything from Led Zeppelin to Paramore from the Fender speakers and subwoofer.

VW Dune Beetle
(Matthew DeBord/BI) 170 horses from this little turbocharged sucker.
A car that you really, really want to drive and that's a great place to listen to rock 'n' roll? What's wrong with that?

Well, the New Beetle isn't exactly new any longer. And even though the reboot revived an iconic piece of automotive design and sought to restore a sense of countercultural whimsy to motoring, the car has been passed by as consumers have increasingly gravitated toward SUVs. This is naturally why VW is SUV-ifying the Beetle, as much as it can with an obscure throwback. People who remember Baja Bugs are people who remember skateboading without helmets in cutoff jeans.

That said, the Dune Beetle is a nifty effort and a competent compact set of wheels. It will probably appeal to those buyers, like myself, who are leaning toward a certain age and might want to buy a relatively cheap car that can serve as a pleasant daily driver or weekend vehicle that won't cost much to own or operate and can't help but put a smile on our faces.

And, quite frankly, the whole "chick car" thing isn't new anymore, either. The Dune Beetle is gender neutral. VW should just quit worrying about it let the Beetle be the Beetle.

VW Dune Beetle


(Matthew DeBord/BI) If the other hand weren't holding the camera. I'd make a "V."