VW’s Dune Beetle Is a City Car Raring for a Road Trip

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IN AN ERA where cars can drive themselves, shred tires with obscene levels of power, and go hundreds of miles on a charge, it’s easy to overlook a car like the Beetle Dune. That’s too bad. I drove 700 miles around Northern California in one, barreling down interstates, carving through mountains, and taking in views of the coast and can say this unassuming drop-top is everything you want in a car. It’s handsome, affordable, efficient, practical, and fun.

It looks good.

The Dune Beetle, slathered in “sandstone yellow” and sporting new front and rear fascias, is a sleeker take on the desert-gobbling Baja Bugs to which it pays homage. You aren’t going to see these things within 500 miles of a race like the Baja 1000, but whatever.

Credit: VOLKSWAGEN

Respect the power.

The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, plenty of oomph for a car like this, even if it takes nearly eight seconds to hit 60 mph. The engine won’t dazzle you—it’s quiet even when the turbo spins up—but it will cruise at 80 mph all day long, and make carving a road like Highway 299 a hoot while delivering 34 mpg.

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It’s well equipped.

The Dune starts at $23,995, which gets you a nicely-appointed ride with a rearview camera and a parking assist feature that, like nearly every other one, beeps so eagerly it’s more annoying than helpful. More useful is VW’s post-collision braking system, which applies the brakes when the airbags deploy to keep the car from moving after impact.

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There’s just enough room.

I had no trouble getting three adults and their backpacks into the car for a long weekend of camping. Granted, we had to buckle one pack into the rear seat, but the other two Tetris’ed into the 15.4-cubic foot trunk. With the roof up, it’s not exactly spacious (especially for the passenger in back), but the visibility’s good enough to stave off any claustrophobia. Not bad for a car that can also park between two San Francisco driveways.

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The infotainment system is acceptable.

VW’s “Car-Net” system is not as bad as its terribly unimaginative name implies, but it’s nothing special, either. And somehow, it doesn’t offer navigation. That’s okay, because the Dune supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so you can use your own system instead. Just about all the practical bits are thought through: There’s a special spot for your phone on the dashboard, a USB port for charging and playing your podcasts, and all the cupholders you need.

Credit: VOLKSWAGEN

There’s just one tragedy here.

Despite VW’s argument that no one wants a Beetle with a manual, a car this fun simply deserves one. Oh sure, the six speed automatic is a fine gearbox that shifts in all the right places, but c’mon. The 3,000-pound, droptop Dune is at its best on the curving backroads where shifting the gears yourself is as much a part of the experience as letting the wind style your hair and the ecstasy of overtaking the boat-towing RV that’s been cramping your style.

Credit: VOLKSWAGEN

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