Review: The Baja Bug-inspired 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune

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The 2016 VW Beetle Dune has a distinct personality that quickly imbues itself into the driver(Credit: Aaron Turpen / Gizmag)

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After a lot of teasing, Volkswagen has finally rolled the Beetle Dune into showrooms. We spent a week with one the vehicles that harkens back to the Baja Bugs of the 1960s and 1970s, and although this modern rendition isn't built to tackle the open desert, sand dunes and beaches like the vehicles that inspired it, we found the Beetle Dune to hold a lot of appeal nonetheless.

Back in the late 1960s and through the '70s, modifying Volkswagen Beetles into what became known as Baja Bugs was a popular enthusiast endeavor in the Southwestern United States. Bug-based dune buggies like the Meyers Manx were available for purchase, but were relatively expensive when compared to the cost of a used VW Bug and a few hours' tinkering. Most modifications were aimed towards improving off-pavement capability by adding more robust suspension components, larger tires, and modifying the Bug's bodywork to accommodate those changes.

With the Beetle, Volkswagen has long traded on nostalgia, and the Dune continues that tradition. It introduced a Baja Beetle concept based on the current-generation Beetle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2014. That concept, which had been dubbed the Beetle Dune, was then shown as a production-ready model a the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2015. The production model, which we drove for a week, is largely unchanged from the production concept shown in LA.

The 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune begins as a production coupe or convertible Beetle, before receiving exterior styling changes, unique wheels, added ground clearance, interior and exterior color schemes to complement the new side moldings, changes to the bumpers, and accentuated ride height.

On paper, the changes between the standard Beetle models and the Dune seem small. The ride height is raised 0.4 in (10.2 mm) and the bodywork makes the car 0.6 in (15.2 mm) wider. A more pronounced front bumper and slightly stronger approach angle for the front fascia add to the rugged appeal of the Dune. The extended ride height and wider body are further accented by black wheel arch extensions that come from the bumpers to run around the arches and along the baseboards. "Dune" graphics, black contrasts on the side mirrors, and large 235/45 all-season tires on 18-inch Canyon aluminum wheels complete the look. When seen in person, these changes are pronounced and give the VW Beetle Dune a very rugged look.

The vehicle is powered by the standard engine option from the Beetle lineup, often dubbed the "Turbo" models. This is a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that outputs 170 hp (127 kW) and 184 lb-ft (249 Nm) of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard and there are three exterior colors to choose from: Pure White, Deep Black Pearl and the Sandstorm Yellow on our loan vehicle.

We found that although the performance and power in the car are fun, they are not breathtaking, and the sacrifice to fuel economy (rated at 28 mpg combined per the EPA, 8.4 L/100km) is not much of a tradeoff when compared to other compacts. In the real world, our fuel economy was averaging about 24.4 mpg (9.6 L/100km), far below what the Beetle Dune is rated for.

Yet this doesn't mean that the Beetle Dune is boring. It's a lot of fun. The convertible top is simple and quick to drop or deploy, and doesn't impede on trunk space, which stands at 15.4 cu ft (436 L). The physical appeal of the car also means that it receives a lot of attention from onlookers. The raised ride height does a little to improve off-pavement capability in light off-road conditions, but the limits of front-wheel drive and the high torque output mean that spinning the tires in the dirt is also all too easy. We suspect that on groomed beaches and flattened dirt roads, the Beetle Dune will do ok, but it will struggle on anything more complicated.

Outside of the extra attention that the 2016 Beetle Dune attracts, though, we were most impressed with the updated interior and the Dune's specific interior additions. The Dune's standard sport seating is well-bolstered and comfortable, and the contrasting light orange stitching really pops, bringing out the Sandstorm Yellow well. The exterior color is carried into the cabin on the door sills and upper dashboard, which brings the unique exterior of the car inside to remind the driver and passengers that this is a special edition Beetle.

Another high point is the new MIB II infotainment system. Included as standard equipment, this system is centered on a 6.3-inch screen built into the dash and uses Volkswagen Car-Net connectivity to integrate Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink for smartphone pairing. The capacitive touch sensor on the screen works in a way similar to a tablet, allowing gesture controls like swiping and zooming. The small screen is able to handle this thanks to a proximity sensor that senses a nearby hand or finger and changes the display's focus to make selections easier. This is especially useful when the vehicle is moving, as it requires less focus from the driver to make a selection.

Several safety features are also standard on the Beetle Dune, including Volkswagen's new Post-Collision Braking System, which mitigates vehicle movement after the initial impact, reducing the chances of an additional collision. A rearview camera and parking radar are also standard.

During our week with the 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune, we drove on surface roads, highways, in town, and in light off-road conditions. Like most in the Beetle line, the Dune is a fun car in both looks and personality. It's not a race car or speed demon, but it's competent on the highway when passing or accelerating up the onramp to the freeway. The Beetle Dune Convertible is a great around-town cruiser as well, garnering plenty of attention from passersby.

The 2016 VW Beetle Dune has a distinct personality that quickly imbues itself into the driver. It's an intangible feeling that brings a slight upturn to the mouth. That is the essence of the Beetle models as a whole and it's exemplified in the Dune edition.

The new Dune special edition in its coupe form entered showrooms in North America just before summer, with a starting price of US$23,995 plus destination. The convertible model will be introduced in the third quarter of 2016.

Product Page: 2016 VW Beetle Dune

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