The verdict: I took the Volkswagen Beetle out for groceries and just kept driving; the cute little coupe's spunky engine and plucky road manners prompted giggles and smiles for miles.
Versus the competition: The Beetle delivers peppy power and quirky style without the size constraints, reliability failings or ergonomic unfriendliness of some competitors. Compare all three here.
For 2016, there's a newly available multimedia system that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring on the car's dashboard screen. Also, a pair of spectacularly colored, retro-inspired trims — Denim and Dune — join the lineup this year; I review the latter here. Compare 2015 and 2016 Beetle models here.
The Beetle’s key competitors include the Fiat 500 and Mini Hardtop (compare all three here).
Exterior & Styling
If you Google "Dune Buggy," what will likely pop up is Volkswagen's charming, '60s-era roadster: the knobby-tired, fender-flared sand crawler. This Beetle isn’t that, but VW is hoping to evoke a bit of that nostalgia with the new Dune trim. There's one catch – and it's a big, yellow one. The Dune I tested was clad in metallic Sandstorm Yellow paint, inside and out. (It also comes in the more sedate Pure White and Deep Black Pearl.)
The Dune sports the regular Beetle's endearing, bug-like face and squat silhouette, but with more attitude. It's 0.4 inches taller and 0.6 inches wider than a regular Beetle and wears extras like black wheels and wheel-arch extensions, as well as a black honeycomb grille. The Dune theme carries over to the profile, with black stripes along the doors and side mirrors as well as Dune decals. In back, there's a large rear spoiler and standard LED taillights.
The overall look is eye-popping, and a lot of smiles and raised eyebrows were thrown my way on the road. I couldn't tell, though, if people were digging the Dune or laughing at (with?!) me. My 6-year-old loved it, so it's probably the latter.
How It Drives
Although the Dune is meant to be a modern take on the off-road-oriented dune buggy, it's most at home on-road. It carves through city streets with a corner-hugging agility that rivals the skateboard-like moves of the Cooper Hardtop. The Dune's agile handling combined with its direct, sharp steering provides a visceral, connected-to-the-road experience.
The Beetle is sporty and fun but in an accessible, comfortable way. Unlike the Mini Hardtop, the ride is firm but not harsh. There's some hop and jitter over bumps, but it maintains composure over everything but the big stuff.
The Dune uses the Beetle's base engine, a 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 170 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque. It’s more than enough. In fact, it's a hoot. After a brief turbo lag delay, it pours on the spunk from a stop. Power delivery is strong, quiet and, for the most part, smooth. The six-speed automatic quickly snaps off shifts from a stop, though some felt a little abrupt and oddly timed, reminding me of the awkward tendencies of VW's dual-clutch automatic transmission. On the highway, however, shift behavior was more natural, with prompt and smooth kickdowns.
Although its road manners impress, the Beetle’s fuel economy disappoints. With an automatic transmission, it’s rated 25/34/28 mpg city/highway/combined – lower than base, automatic versions of the Fiat 500 (27/34/30) and the two-door Mini Hardtop (27/37/31). There's one bonus with the Beetle, however: It takes regular gas instead of its competitors' preference for premium.
The cabin is a mix of over-the-top glitz and understated sportiness. It's dripping in mustard, with hard, metallic-yellow paneling on the dashboard, control panel and doors. The gray standard sport seats tone things down a bit and are very comfortable. Big, aggressive bolsters make them cozy and supportive but not restrictive. Their yellow piping and contrast stitching provide a mere pop of complementary color in an otherwise over-glammed cabin. The Dune-badged, flat-bottom steering wheel is another subtle, sporty touch.
Although ride height is up only a bit over the regular Beetle, it matters. Getting into the front seat requires less of a stoop and I felt like I was sitting higher, which made for a more comfortable viewpoint.
Overall comfort is a mixed bag, however. In terms of room, my 5-foot, 6-inch self fit well in the front seat. The Beetle offers more front headroom and legroom than the Fiat 500 but a bit less than the two-door Mini Hardtop. The Beetle’s cabin touch-points are hard, however, specifically the center armrest. There's also no shoulder belt height adjuster – a small but crucial feature for driver comfort.
In back, there's seating for two on bolstered, hugging seats, but space is tight; adults will feel cramped. The Beetle has more rear headroom than the Fiat 500 and Mini Hardtop, but not quite as much rear legroom as the Fiat 500. Passengers will have to rock-paper-scissors for the single backseat cupholder.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Volkswagen's latest multimedia system is straightforward, with a clear menu structure and a responsive touch-screen. Although I appreciate the tuning and volume knobs next to the screen, using the tuning knob requires an extra step. Just turning it doesn't change the station; you have to push it after you've made your selection, which seems unnecessary.
On the plus side, the system comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, and using them is seamless. I was able to quickly connect my Android phone using an included cable and display Google Maps on the touch-screen for navigation.
Cargo & Storage
Small-items storage in the cabin is meager. The center console box is narrow and shallow and the double glove-box is small as well. Also annoying is the Beetle's inadequate door-panel storage. Instead of door pockets, there's a large elastic band – which can't be trusted to hold anything.
Although the trunk looks tiny, it's usable thanks to its wide opening. By the numbers, the Beetle offers 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space, handily besting the Hardtop (8.7) and 500 (9.5 cubic feet). The rear seats can be folded to open up the roomy dome for surprisingly large volume.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the 2016 Beetle earned a score of marginal in the small overlap front test and scores of good in other categories. The 2016 Fiat 500 fared even worse, with the lowest score, poor, in the small overlap front test. Meanwhile, the 2016 Cooper Hardtop aced its IIHS crash tests. In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the Beetle earned five stars overall, the highest score. The 500 and Hardtop earned four stars.
A post-collision braking system that applies the brakes after a primary collision to reduce damage from another collision is standard on all Beetles. A backup camera is standard everywhere but on the base trim, where one is unavailable. A blind spot warning system is standard on top trims. The Beetle lacks common safety options like a forward collision warning system, automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning. Click here for a full list of the Beetle’s safety features.
Although the Dune's increased height aids overall visibility, its large rear spoiler creeps into view.
Value in Its Class
The base Beetle starts at $20,415 including destination – about $2,500 more than the Fiat 500 and $1,000 less than a two-door Cooper Hardtop. The Dune model is $24,815 and while I appreciate its added style flair and standard convenience features, like the multimedia system and heated seats, it (annoyingly) lacked push-button start.
A car like this has two goals and the Dune nails them both: It's a blast to drive and it turns heads like nothing else on the road.