What is it?
This is the production version of Volkswagen's Beetle Dune concept, which was revealed at the Los Angeles motor show in November of last year. It's also the end of a story that began in 2000 with the unveiling of the original Beetle Dune concept.
It may have taken 16 years to reach production, but Volkswagen is hoping the Beetle Dune will tempt the same style-conscious buyers as the Beetle, while also appealing to those seeking the looks of an off-roader. To this end, the Beetle Dune features a ride height that has been raised up by 10mm compared to that of the standard Beetle, along with wider wheel arches, which increase its total width by 14mm, larger 18-inch alloy wheels and more prominent side sills.
There's also a new front bumper finished in silver, a new underbody guard and new LED light designs at the rear. And if that wasn't convincing enough, there are large 'Dune' stickers along each side. The interior will be familiar to current Beetle owners but includes bespoke instrument graphics and contrasting stitching on the seats and steering wheel.
When the Dune comes to the UK in late Spring, it'll be offered in both coupé and cabriolet forms and will come with a choice of 1.2, 1.4 and 2.0-litre petrol engines with power outputs ranging from 103bhp to 217bhp. There'll also be 109bhp 1.6-litre and 148bhp 2.0-litre diesels, all carried over from the current Beetle. A six-speed manual transmission will be standard, with DSG dual-clutch auomatics available as an optional.
This pre-production model, however, comes with a 168bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine, which will be offered in the US market, paired to a six-speed DSG transmission.
What's it like?
Even before setting off, the Beetle Dune has real appeal. It looks far more aggressive than the standard Beetle, and even in soft-top form cuts an impressive figure.
The theme continues inside, and while Volkswagen's interior modifications for the Beetle Dune might seem minor, they do make all a difference. The bespoke instrument cluster graphics, contrasting stitching, Dune badging and soft-touch plastic console give the impression of a car that can tackle the same off-road terrain that made the Baja Bugs of the 1960s famous.
Trouble is, an impression is all it amounts to, because while the Beetle Dune may look like an off-roader, it has received no real mechanical upgrades to help it deal with difficult terrain. It's being sold exclusively in front-wheel-drive form, too, so don't expect to be tackling any sand dunes in this Beetle.
Observations on the 1.8-litre petrol engine in this prototype car are of little value, given that it will never be offered here in the UK, but even with 168bhp it felt sluggish in this larger, heavier Beetle. We wonder, then, whether the 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol engine-equipped Dunes set to be offered in the UK will prove to be underpowered.
The Dune's raised ride height does bring advantages for the driver. Even 10mm extra gives you a much clearer view of the road ahead, and there's good all-round visibility. The seats are comfortable, too, although as in the standard car the rear bench is best reserved for luggage or children. There's a useful amount of boot space, however, but it's no more than is already found on the Beetle Cabriolet.
On asphalt, the Dune handles well. The steering is light and precise around town, weighting up well at higher speeds. There's also little body roll through the corners. The ride is slightly firm in town, but at cruising speeds bumps and road imperfections are absorbed well, even with 18in alloys fitted. This all leads to a relaxing and even enjoyable driving experience.
The soft-top folding roof is easy to operate and stows itself behind the rear seats, allowing drivers to enjoy the same open-top driving experience offered by the regular Beetle Cabriolet. It's enjoyable, and the Dune looks arguably at its best with its roof down.
We didn't get the chance to test the Dune in a fully off-road environment, but we did take it along some gravel tracks deep in the Mojave Desert in the US. The Beetle felt sure-footed here, and considering this is the toughest challenge many owners will expect the Dune to take on, it passed with flying colours.
Should I buy one?
The starting price for the Beetle Dune coupé is £21,300, and the Cabriolet starts at £24,255. The regular Beetle range starts at £16,275.
The Beetle Dune is, of course, mostly show rather than go when it comes to off-road driving. There's very little here in the way of actual trailblazing potential, but the vast majority of owners won't mind that at all. They will want a car that just looks like it can go to the ends of the earth and back, rather than one that actually can. The Beetle Dune is a fashion statement, and an effective one at that. Those looking for a style-conscious soft-roader, and who've already turned away from the new Fiat 500X and Mini Countryman, may well find a home here.
Volkswagen Beetle Dune 1.8 TSI Cabriolet (model not available in UK)
Location Las Vegas; On sale Spring; Price £na for UK; Engine 4 cyls, 1781cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 168bhp at 4800rpm; Torque 184lb ft at 1800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Kerb weight na; 0-62mph 8.5sec (est); Top speed 141mph (est); Economy 30.1mpg (est); CO2/tax band na