Well, I survived yet another Chicago Winter. I’ve lived in northern Illinois for over twenty years, and I know what to expect of the winters here. It’s not that they’re severely harsh. We don’t often get heavy snowfalls, maybe a handful a year that amount to more than a couple inches. The temperatures aren’t that horrible either, typically dipping below zero only once or twice during the season.
What makes the Chicago Winter so difficult is how long it lasts. On the calendar, it is the same three months as anywhere else. In reality however, Chicago Winter generally starts in late October and runs through the end of March, making it approximately five months long. Is it any wonder Chicago is home to the blues?
There is one sure-fire way to beat these inevitable Chicago blues: get the hell out, preferably about two-thirds of the way through, and definitely to some place warmer and sunnier. This year we chose Florida as our destination.
I know, Florida isn’t the most original choice to escape from a northern winter. Snowbird Yankees have been retreating here for decades. But it had been several years since my wife had visited her alma mater, the University of Tampa, and this trip would also serve as a chance for her to hang out with old college buddies one last time before beginning her new life as a mother.
As Midwesterners arriving in central Florida in early February, we naturally wanted to absorb as much of the Sunshine State’s hottest commodity as we could. There was no way we were spending our brief visit trapped in a tin-top Malibu/Taurus/Stratus rent-a-ride. A convertible was mandatory for this trip. We were able to arrange some time at the wheel of a 2005 New Beetle Convertible with the 1.8T engine and manual transmission. Our pale yellow droptop was the perfect ride for our mid-winter respite.
There’s no accounting for Mother Nature, and much to our surprise Florida was experiencing record low temperatures when we landed. But at least the sun was shining, which was more than we could say about Chicago. Before we even reached the car, we agreed that there would probably be better days ahead to fold the top. And so after loading the carry-ons into the trunk and throwing our one large suitcase in the back seat, we left the airport garage with the windows closed, the seat heaters on, and the top locked in the upright position.
A short drive from the airport, we stopped for lunch at one of Kelly’s favorite college date dives. She said she studied Marine Science in college, but after hearing a few of her stories I have a feeling most of her studying came down to sampling combinations of crustaceans and beer. Regardless, the old restaurant brought back fond memories for her.
To continue our trip down Memory Lane, we decided to brave the fifty-some-degree sunshine for our drive over to UT. The windblocker and top boot were wrangled from underneath the smaller baggage in the trunk, before the top was lowered to reveal a perfect, cloudless Florida sky. Getting the top down was no trouble at all- a quick turn of the central latch releases the roof from the header, and from there it’s a simple matter of holding the top switch until you get the “all-clear” chime. Fitting both the windblocker and the boot were considerably more difficult by comparison, but well worth the effort.
Aside from the disappearing top, the New Beetle Convertible gets another handy feature, one that would be welcome on any car in fact. A single switch controls all four of the power windows at once. Why this feature should be reserved strictly for droptop vehicles is beyond me.
Cruising slowly down the small university’s brick lanes, the Beetle seemed truly in its element. Volkswagen convertibles have long been a status symbol among the young and hip, conveying a sense of reverse snobbery that modern designers love to refer to as “shabby chic.” Our pale yellow car was no exception, gaining the attention and respect of the perfectly tanned and apparently well-bred students roaming the campus. You soon realize the convertible top is a dual-purpose feature. It not only expands your outward view of the world, it also increases your chances that the world will see you.
Our excursion of Tampa was necessarily brief so that we could make it to Sarasota before dinner. The sun felt so good on our winter-worn faces that we left the top down for the drive south on Interstate 75. With the windows all the way up, the cockpit was calm, even at speeds above the 70 mph limit. The windblocker does its job rather effectively; so well in fact that it’s reason enough to leave rear-seat passengers (the kids, perhaps?) at home.
Motoring down the highway, the Beetle feels extremely solid compared to previous open-top Volkswagens. The days of simply removing the roof from a sedan are long gone. VW went to great length to remove the inherent cowl shake that emerges when the lid is lifted from the tin can. To that end, the convertible gains an additional 250+ pounds over the sedan, most of it structural reinforcement.
The combination of 1.8T and manual transmission typically indicates a VW with special performance capabilities. Not so in this car. All the added bulk required to make the open car feel like a sedan absorbs any of the performance potential from this drivetrain. It also doesn’t help that the 3166 pounds of mobile tanning salon are pulled around by the weakest version of the venerable 1.8T, making only 150 horses. Still, this is 25 percent more power than the 2.0-liter engine that comes standard in the Beetle Convertible. The resulting performance is adequate if not stellar.
Unlike most German cars, this one is no Autobahn stormer. On the contrary, cruising is what the Beetle Convertible does best.
We arrived in Sarasota mildly sunburnt, but enjoying the warmth on our faces. After a little catching-up time with our hosts, fellow VWvortex staffer Brad Beardow and his wife, Noriko, we made a quick drive over to Siesta Key to watch the sun set over the Gulf. Though windy and cool, there wasn’t a snowflake in sight as our first day drew to a close. Already I could feel my spirit recharging.
The next day we returned to Siesta Key. The winds had calmed, the sun was up and there was not a cloud in sight. The top was once again lowered into its full sun-catching position as we tooled around the Key. A rare Red Tide outbreak (a marine plant with irritating spores) prevented us from enjoying the beach, a natural backdrop for the Beetle. Only the surfboards were missing from this classic postcard scene.
A little souvenir shopping and a quick lunch, then back on the highway, northbound for Tampa for a couple more days. We set the cruise control at a relaxing speed- there was really no need to rush at this point. We kicked up the volume on the awesome stereo, enjoying the ‘80s alt-rock coming over XM’s “Fred” station. An odd bump on the top of the dashboard houses the antenna for the satellite radio, a feature available on all 2005 New Beetles.
Our time on the highway reminded me what of the emotional effect the New Beetle, especially in convertible form, still has on people. Other drivers routinely pulled along side us, cheerfully waving and staring at the car. The Beetle Convertible has friends wherever it goes, always invoking smiles.
Back in Tampa, we parked the car for a couple days to enjoy some more time with old college friends. As much as we were enjoying the solar therapy afforded by the Beetle Convertible, it was refreshing to get off the road and explore some of Florida’s less touristy natural beauty. An afternoon riding nature trails on two wheels was followed by a day of boating on the Gulf. I had almost forgotten it was still winter, and that I would soon be returning home to another couple months of gloomy weather.
We spent the last few hours of our short trip with the top down, trying desperately to soak in as much of the warm sunshine as possible; it would have to carry us for several weeks until we could count on our own warm sunshine. It may have only been a few days, but we boarded the plane rested and rejuvenated. The Beetle Convertible was the perfect companion for a long weekend getaway in the sun.
For more discussion on this story, click on the link to our discussion forums at the left.