The iconic VW Beetle is going away — here's what it was like to drive a $27,000 version of the Bug

Matthew DeBord/BIThe last days of Beetle.
  • VW is ending the long run of the Beetle.
  • The car was in production, in various forms, for 80 years.
  • A few years back, I tested an offbeat trim level – the Dune Beetle – and I was impressed.

You have to be versed in VW Bug lore to fully appreciate the “Dune” Beetle, which along with all other Beetles is on the way out after an eight-decade run.

VW doesn’t see a market anymore for the Beetle, when what consumers are clamoring for are compact SUVs and crossovers.

And in any case, 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.

(OK, 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 large trucks or muscle rides with more than 500 horsepower. Or BMW 3-Series.

Anything but Bugs.

For the 2012 model year, VW moved away from the first New Beetle design with a more aggressive body style that it has 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 desert a raise a little hell in the Summer of Love.

Baja BugDevkotlan Photography/Wikimedia CommonsThe Baja Bug in action.

The revived Baja Big lost, obviously, the old air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and got 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 the $US26,760 test car that we drove a few years back 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 SkitchMatthew DeBord/BIA 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 a time when young folks all wanted dune buggies when they grew up?

I’m not sure, really, and now that the Beetle is going away, the window to buy is closing. 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 BeetleMatthew DeBord/BIIt’s gold on the inside. too.

Maybe people have gotten used to the New Beetle (and after a decade and a half, they should have), 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 colour, 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 BeetleMatthew DeBord/BI170 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 SUV-ified 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. (Obviously, the tactic didn’t really work.)

That said, the Dune Beetle is a nifty effort and a competent compact set of wheels. While it remains in the VW lineup, it could 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 and let the Beetle be the Beetle.

VW Dune BeetleMatthew DeBord/BIIf the other hand weren’t holding the camera. I’d make a ‘V.’

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