It’s not often that I get to compare a long-ago automobile to its modern equivalent. Sure, I have a couple of first-generation Mustangs, so it’s very easy to see how far a current one has come in most ways. And I’ve been able to take a drive in some of the restored cars at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center; some great milestones of both heritage and innovation for that brand.
But for the most part, a classic example of a current automobile is something that we either admire from afar, or try to recall some memory of from back in the day. Often, those memories are a little more positive than the reality.
In a great bit of timing and luck, I got a chance to concurrently sample Volkswagen’s 2013 Beetle Convertible, and a mint condition original 1979 Beetle Convertible. Let the comparisons begin!
The new Beetle Convertible is the open air version of the redesigned VW Beetle that arrived in showrooms just over a year ago. Compared to the 1999-2010 New Beetle (note the proper noun form of “New” in that one’s title), the 2012 Beetle (dropping “New”) brought a more rakish, retro look to the car. The roof and hood flatten out a bit, and overall the car is much less feminine in design.
As part of the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible’s media tour, some journalists were given the opportunity to drive some cars from VW’s early decades, hence my being handed the keys to a time-warp example from the final year of air-cooled Beetle sales in this country, 1979.
After a twist of the thin metal key, the little engine out back settled into its familiar thrumming cadence, sounding rather like a lawnmower in comparison to any modern automobile. Pushed to its max, the flat four (with fuel injection added in its later years to help it meet emissions standards) only produces 48 horsepower.
But even though the vintage car wasn’t quick, it was fun, and even pleasant. No power steering needed for the light front end, and the manual drum brakes work just fine in normal driving. There was an overall feeling of “oldness” in this ride, at least as far as the design and technology goes. Though the car itself had just 600 kilometers on its Canadian-spec metric odometer, it was no secret that a new 1979 Beetle back in the day was in many ways a brand-new antique.
After checking out the cute oldie-but-goodie, it was time to jump into the new one. The base 2013 Beetle convertible makes more than three and a half times the power (170) from five cylinders, and the Turbo makes even more with a 2.0 liter four (200). An automatic transmission is standard on the car, but with the Turbo you can choose a 6-speed manual, which seems at least 100 years newer than the 4-speed in the ’79. (Mainly because the gearshift feels as though it’s actually connected to something.)
When it comes time to lower or raise the top, the 2013 just needs the push of a button, and the top goes up or down in about the time it takes to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And, you can even do this while the car is moving at up to 30 miles per hour. Although the vintage car’s manual top is simple, you have to get out to apply enough leverage, and it doesn’t quite sit down flush when open.
Then there’s all the safety equipment in 2013 like air bags, four wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic stability control, and a much beefier car in general. Additionally, comfort and convenience items abound that weren’t in most new cars in 1979, let alone the Beetle of that era.
You’ll also pay a lot more for the new Beetle Convertible, obviously. Starting price is $24,995 for the base model, and $27,795 for the Turbo. With a bunch of options, my Turbo test car stickered out at right around $32,000.
Sure it’s fun to look back and remember those vintage Beetles; we almost all have a story about them. But it’s also nice to be able to zip into traffic with ease, drive at high speeds, and carry on a conversation with the top down on the freeway without having to shout. For all those reasons, the 2013 VW Beetle Convertible outshines the old one, but does so with a touch of retro flair.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave.