Driven: 2015 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, Golf SportWagen

The latest VW Beetle convertible received a fresh new look with less overt cuteness | Bob Golfen
The latest VW Beetle convertible received a fresh new look with less overt cuteness | Bob Golfen

Two very different sorts of Volkswagens parked in my driveway recently, one for pleasure and one for practicality. But what they had in common was that each demonstrated how much VW has upped its game and raised its latest generation of cars to a new level of refinement.

First up was a Beetle convertible, the second version of the retro homage to the seminal VW Beetle, and it seems like so much more of a real-world car than the quirky, cutesy original New Beetle. Yes, they dropped New from the name as they reworked the car for the 2013 model year. And they call it the third-generation convertible, taking into consideration the first VW ragtops that ran from the ’50s through the ’70s.

The Beetle convertible succeeds at its prime directive, which is to be fun. Fun to drive, fun to look at, fun to be seen in and especially, fun for heading out on a clear day with the top down. But it’s also a good solid car that performs well and does all the chores that a non-fun car could do, even on a dreary day. Except for trunk space, which is almost non-existent.

The Golf SportsWagen has a new name and an updated style | Bob Golfen
The Golf SportsWagen has a new name and an updated style | Bob Golfen

The other VW, a Golf SportWagen TDI, could have been considered a non-fun car except that it was so enjoyable to drive. A diesel-powered station wagon might not sound too thrilling, but along with its cargo capacity and superior fuel mileage, the SportWagen actually lives up to its names as a sporty wagon that performs and handles so much better than one might expect.

VW’s mastery of small, turbocharged diesel engines is strongly evident, with performance that is strong and quiet, without that harsh rattling noise that is inherent in diesels. And I never caught a whiff of fuel-oil smell from the “clean” diesel engine.

The Beetle still retains its retro charm, although now better executed, but it also retains something of its “chick car” image (and I hope female readers will forgive me for that) that might hamper sales to macho guys. But that’s all perception, and if a middle-aged dude wants to enjoy the look and feel of a VW Beetle convertible, who could fault him?

The Beetle that I drove was a well-equipped 1.8T base model with the 170-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged four banger and a six-speed automatic, the only transmission offered with this model, and a base price of $25,595. With the Technology Package that adds keyless entry and push-button start, a rearview camera and satellite radio, the bottom line with shipping came out to $28,815.

The Beetle has a nicely tailored automatic top | Bob Golfen
The Beetle has a nicely tailored automatic top | Bob Golfen

Two other Beetle versions are offered, the TDI with clean-diesel power and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission, and the R-Line performance model with a 210-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four and the choice of manual or automatic.

The convertible has a very smooth and accommodating ride whether on a winding road or a superhighway, with assured performance from its turbo four and decent cornering with just a smidge of extra body sway. Hardly any wind noise crept through the fabric top, and with the top down, wind buffeting was well-controlled.

The automatic top works very well, but the tonneau cover that goes over the folded top is something else. It’s a bulky mass that takes up space in the tiny trunk, and it requires an advanced degree and well-developed finger muscles to install. After struggling with it once, I just stowed it even when the top was down, as I’m sure most owners do as well.

The interior is very nice, especially at this price point, with materials that feel luxurious, even if the seats are leatherette instead of leather and there are a few hard, pebbled surfaces. At no time did I feel that VW had shirked in quality with a cabin that felt solid, attractive and functional. Although, the rear seats are super tight, even with the front seats moved forward. The back seats fold forward to increase the sparse trunk space.

The Golf interior feels high-quality | Volkswagen
The Golf interior feels high-quality | Volkswagen

The dashboard and interior trim of the Golf SportWagen also were well above par for its price range, with plenty of space for this too-tall driver and decent room for back-seat denizens. Cargo space is commodious for a compact car, the stretched-wheelbase Golf wagon with its long tail showing off its spatial superiority compared with popular compact hatchbacks.

The Golf SportWagen is not a new product for Volkswagen, by the way. Previously and in the U.S. only, it was named the Jetta SportWagen while the rest of world called it Golf. VW rectified the discrepancy this year as it updated the wagon for 2015.

The styling seemed bland at first, but the more I looked at the Golf, the better I liked it. The proportions and subtle curves seem just about right. Although basically a utilitarian beast, the classy-looking wagon would not be scorned when pulling up to the country-club parking valets. The clean-diesel engine won’t have the valets holding their noses, either.

The high-torque, low-revving engine drives seamlessly, the automatic transmission upshifting early to get the most from the diesel’s grunt. For the driver, the difference between this and a gas engine is essentially unnoticeable except for the fuel-mileage rating of 31 mpg city and 42 highway.

The SportWagen diesel turns in superior fuel mileage | Volkswagen
The SportWagen diesel turns in superior fuel mileage | Volkswagen

The other available SportWagen engine is the 1.8-liter turbocharged four, and both engines can be mated with either manual or automatic transmissions. Whichever, it would make a great road-trip car to anywhere.

VW reduced the content pricing for its base SportWagen S models, which have starting prices of $21,395 with the gas engine and $24,595 for the diesel. You’ll have to decide whether the $3,200 premium is worth it, considering the higher cost of diesel fuel and the mileage for the gasoline model estimated at 25 city and 35 highway. You do the math.

I drove an upmarket TDI SEL with all the trimmings, including VW’s reworked touchscreen system for navigation, audio, climate control and communications, and the excellent sound system made by Fender, the electric-guitar people. It’s always cool to see the classic Fender logo on the speaker covers. The bottom line nudged up to nearly $34,000 for that all-in model.

So there you have two sides of Volkswagen, the pleasurable and the practical, with each of them bringing enjoyable drivability to the mix.

2015 Volkswagen Beetle 1.8T convertible
Vehicle type: 4-passenger, two-door convertible, front-wheel drive
Base price: $27,995 Price as tested: $28,815
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4, 170 horsepower at 4,800 rpm, 182 pound-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 100 inches Overall length/width: 168.4 inches / 71.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,225 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 24 city / 32 highway / 27 combined
Assembled in: Puebla, Mexico

2015 Volkswagen SportWagen TDI SEL
Vehicle type: 5-passenger, four-door wagon, front–wheel drive
Base price: $31,445 Price as tested: $33,955
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 diesel, 150 horsepower at 3,500 rpm, 236 pound-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.5 inches Overall length/width: 179.6 inches / 70.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,120 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 31 city / 42 highway / 35 combined
Assembled in: Puebla, Mexico

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