Jumping Bean Meets Beetle
The Mexican jumping bean is not what it seems. Not only is it not a bean, but it also doesn’t jump all by itself. What jumps is a moth larva that has eaten its way inside. When it moves (in response to heat), the “bean” (actually a seed pod) jumps, too. In a similar way, the 2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune is an interesting novelty that isn’t what it seems.
A new midrange trim level for the 2016 Beetle, the Dune was inspired by the Baja Bug, a classic Type 1 Beetle that has been modified for desert racing, specifically the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 races in Mexico. Those cars had their interiors and nonessential bits stripped out to save weight, and rollcages, heavy duty shocks, and tall, knobby tires installed for off-road racing. This factory-built tribute doesn’t go nearly as far, sporting new front and rear fascias, trim pieces, fender flares, wheels, tires, interior trim, and paint options.
Volkswagen people say the ride height has been increased 0.4 inch and the track width extended 0.6 inch. No one yet has been able to say exactly how those minor increases were achieved nor which Beetle model the changes are being compared to, but we’re speculating it’s nothing more involved than a larger wheel and tire package with slightly greater wheel backspacing. Although we’re fairly certain about the backspacing, it’s also possible Volkswagen engineers installed slightly taller springs to achieve the ride height increase.
Four-tenths of an inch isn’t much, so Volkswagen has employed a few visual tricks to make the Dune look like it rides higher than it does. The front and rear fascias now employ aluminum “skidplates” that are unlikely to provide any meaningful protection off-road but nonetheless draw the eye to their angled positioning to give the illusion of a higher nose and greater approach/departure angles. The new foglight and turn signal surrounds reach farther up the nose than before, making the nose appear to sit higher, and a new intake just below the hood removes some visual mass from the front bumper. Polished aluminum trim pieces below the doors use the same trick. The big spoiler on the trunk, meanwhile, helps the car’s beltline look higher than it is. It also doesn’t hurt that standard Beetles ride somewhat high and have large fender gaps, which help the Dune look higher off the ground than it is. It’s not something you’d normally notice if you weren’t looking for it.
Off-road, the little lift is about as helpful as you’d expect. Near Mount Charleston, north of Las Vegas, Nevada, we pulled off the highway and onto a well-maintained road consisting mostly of small rocks, sand, and dirt. The Dune took it in stride at first, but about 50 feet in we dragged the nose traversing a medium rut. Thank goodness for that skidplate. Roughly 300 feet later, we called off the expedition on account of a much larger rut the car clearly wasn’t going to cross safely. We managed not to drag the nose again during our retreat to the safety of pavement.
Back in its natural environment rather than its aspirational one, the Dune drives like any other Beetle. That is to say, pretty well, at least from what we were able to tell on our drive route, which featured mostly long, straight, freshly paved roads and one mountain pass of consequence, which also happened to be covered in snow. As the Dune is mechanically near-as-makes-no-difference identical to other Beetles on 18-inch wheels, we suspect it handles the same. Based on previous tests, that would be pretty well but with more body roll and less steering feel than we’d like. Although the snow precluded us from verifying these suspicions, we can report that the all-season tires and traction control acquitted themselves nicely on the snowy, sandy pavement.
We can also confirm the new 1.8-liter, turbocharged engine has just enough power and smooth enough delivery to satisfy our lead feet. Unlike the larger 2.0-liter engine in the R-Line model, the 1.8 doesn’t suffer noticeably from turbo lag. The six-speed automatic transmission is still programmed for fuel economy, but the Sport setting is livelier than we remember.
Some old gripes were perceivable, the most pressing being a soggy, unresponsive brake pedal that requires much more force than it ought to in order to get an acceptable return. More bite and a linear engagement would go a long way towards solving this. The Dune comes in both convertible and hardtop models, and the convertible in particular continues to suffer from significant wind noise around the A-pillars.
As the roads were all in good shape or brand-new, we were not able to verify whether the ride is still too harsh.
On other fronts, we approve of the new paint and interior trim options, as well as the now-standard parking sensors. The updated infotainment system also gets positive marks for being significantly more intuitive to operate than the previous model.
Clearly, the Beetle Dune is an homage to the classic Baja Bug in form rather than function, and honestly, that’s OK. Part of what made the original Beetle so adaptable to off-roading was its rugged simplicity and rear-engine, rear-drive layout, neither of which describes the modern Beetle. Instead, you get a car nearly as well-equipped as a 1.8-liter-engined Beetle can get, but it starts $1,000 USD less and looks 1,000 percent cooler. No, it won’t run the Baja 1000 with just a set of Jeep tires and beefier shocks, but it’ll be infinitely better to daily drive than any classic Beetle ever was. (I owned a ’67 and feel more than qualified to make that determination.)
It’s not a modern Baja Bug, but it’ll look pretty good parked next to the one in your garage, and you’ll never have to do a valve adjustment (hurray!).