Volkswagen Beetle's sweeping roofline creates tremendous front-seat headroom, more than even in the tall PT Cruiser and considerably more than in the Mini Cooper. The convertible gives up only half an inch of front-seat headroom to the coupe.
The Beetle's deep dashboard can make you feel like you're driving the car from the back seat. You cannot see the hood or anything else but road in front of the windshield. Beefy front A-pillars (the post between the windshield and side window) impede vision in tight corners. (This big dash area and thick A-pillars no doubt contribute to the Beetle's excellent crumple-zone design.) Small sun visors have no hope of blocking the sun coming in through the giant side windows.
The standard seats are comfortable and attractive. The flat design of the seat bottom makes it easy to get in and out, but side bolstering is lacking for driving quickly on winding roads. The usual fore-aft and rake adjustments are provided, while a lever jacks the height up and down. My right knee came into contact with the corner of the center console, but adjusting the seat rearward solved this. Your passenger may encounter the unfriendly seat tracks while groping around for the fore-aft adjustment. The outside mirrors are mounted well forward of the driver, which is actually a better position than that of many other cars which mount them too close.
The back seat is fine for adults on short trips. Shoulder and hip room are cramped in the coupe and significantly more cramped in the convertible. But there's decent rear headroom, more in the convertible than in the hardtop (and even more with the top down). There's a reasonable amount of rear legroom in the convertible when the front passengers cooperate, and hardtop Beetles offer even more rear legroom. Beetle coupe offers more rear legroom than the Mini, less than the hardtop PT Cruiser. (Beetle coupe and convertible offer 33.5 and 31.5 inches, respectively; Mini offers 31.3 inches.). Both of Beetle's front seats flip and pivot up and forward, making it easier to climb into the back seats. They then flip back to their original position, a nice memory feature.
Beetle's trunk is small, just 12 cubic feet, though the rear seats can be folded down to more than double that volume. The convertible's trunk is even smaller, just 5 cubic feet. Mini Cooper offers just 5.3 cubic feet, but PT Cruiser has a far larger cargo bay at nearly 22 cubic feet.
Dual cup holders in front of the shifter are tucked under the protruding center dash that houses HVAC and audio controls. That arrangement appears to preclude tall drinks, but the cup holder platform cleverly swivels to the right to make room for that grande cappuccino. Your companion will have to hold his or hers, however.
Beetle's interior is attractive and, as in all Volkswagens, nicely finished. A myriad of materials is used to give the Beetle a high-tech look. We love the painted metal trim at the upper edges of the doors, which matches the exterior paint. In GL and GLS models, the standard cloth upholstery is tightly woven, resilient and sporty, yet soft to the touch. Leatherette (vinyl) and leather are also available. The upper dash uses coarse, hard materials accented by smoother, softer surfaces elsewhere. Curved, dimpled door handles look ultra-modern. The steering wheel feels good and features brushed aluminum spokes. The little bud vase keeps a small flower looking fresh or holds a plastic daisy.
Several running changes were made during the 2003 model year, most of them for the better. VW moved the clock and temperature display to the rearview mirror. The center console was redesigned with storage and a padded armrest. On GLS models, pinch protection was added to the power sunroof. The optional (dealer installed) six-disc CD changer mounts in the center console on convertibles, and in the trunk on hardtops.
The padded armrest on the redesigned center console is nice enough, but the storage compartment is small. In our convertible, the CD changer filled this space, eliminating one of the Beetle's few storage cubbies. (VW has promised an in-dash CD/MP3 player for all New Beetles later in the 2004 model year.) And the console looks like it may show dirt and wear over the long haul when ordered in the light colors. The glove box looks impressive and has a small shelf at the top for the owner's manual, but its massive door belies the tiny, awkwardly shaped space within.
A big speedometer and tiny tachometer are set in a circular gauge panel that glows a rich, deep blue at night. This indigo lighting complements the red lighting used for stereo and heating/air conditioning controls to minimize glare at night. It also looks neat. Sleek radio and heater controls are within easy reach on the protruding center dash, but can be difficult to decipher and awkward to operate at speed. Below are controls for the (optional) adjustable seat heaters and the electronic stability control system.
The power top, like the rest of the car, is nicely finished. The soft cloth lining looks and feels good. It seems to filter noise well. Beetle is a quiet convertible at speed, and it comes with a glass rear window and electric defroster. On the down side, the map light in the convertible is mounted on the rear-view mirror, where it is awkward to reach, and almost invites your co-driver to knock the mirror askew when trying to press the switch.
The GL convertible comes with a manually folded top, but the top on GLS models is power-operated. Twist a lever, press a button, and it opens in just 13 seconds. Press a big power window switch and all windows lower at once. Within seconds, you're in a better mood. Turn on the seat heaters if it's chilly. Our convertible came with a bottle of sunscreen, a nice gift from Volkswagen. Pressing the button again raises the top in the same 13 seconds, though it takes a little practice to get it latched without a momentary struggle. Rearward vision is compromised with the top down, blocking sight lines down low. You'll be looking at windshields rather than grilles. Raising the seat improves the view somewhat.
An optional wind blocker ($250) fits into the rear-seat area and effectively turns the convertible into a two-seater. It's a nicely designed piece and easy to remove, but reinstalling it is a challenge and you can scratch the interior if you're not careful. Also, you'll need to store it at home when not using it because, once removed, it won't fit in the trunk. We didn't drive the Beetle enough at high speeds with the top down to be sold on the need for the wind blocker (it was winter). It certainly isn't needed at low speeds. Our recommendation is to wait on the wind blocker and purchase it later if you find you rarely have back-seat passengers and would like to reduce wind turbulence at speed.
Convertibles boast a special 10-speaker sound system with two 220-millimeter subwoofers in the front, two 160-mm woofers in the rear, four tweeters and two mid-range speakers. The placement of the speakers helps maintain high-quality stereo sound even while competing with wind buffeting. Three 12-volt power points are provided, in the front and rear seating areas and in the trunk.
OnStar, now available on New Beetles, doubles as a navigation system without having to program anything. Simply press the button and a human operator responds to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle. The staff will notify the authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover. They can perform all kinds of services. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel, and make reservations for you.