MALIBU, CA – Volkswagen’s iconic Beetle convertible returns after a brief hiatus and incorporates the same aggressive design as the refreshed coupe that arrived for model year ’12.

The German auto maker in recent years has stressed a more masculine approach to design and marketing, hoping to attract male drivers after the last iteration of the Bug became a hit with the sorority-girl set.

This legendary car is woven deeply into the American cultural fabric, but more salient today is the role of the Beetle and Beetle Convertible in Volkswagen’s conquest of America.

The auto maker has set a lofty goal of reaching 800,000 vehicle sales in the U.S. in 2018 (up from 438,133 in 2012), but the Beetle, itself, is predicted to account for a small fraction of that growth.

The Beetle currently makes up about 7% of VW’s American sales, with the Passat and Jetta sedans leading the charge. VW executives are counting on the re-introduced convertible, which went on sale in December, to push the needle a bit.

Volkswagen sold 29,174 Beetles in 2012, trailing the Mini Cooper by 15,000 units, WardsAuto data shows. The auto maker has said it is targeting buyers of the Mini brand as well as the Fiat 500, but for the convertible it also hopes to attract frugal buyers aspiring to a pricier Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang.

Like the Beetle coupe, the convertible is offered with three powertrains: a 2.5L I-5 with 170 hp and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque; a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. with 200 hp and 207 lb.-ft. (281 Nm) of torque; and a diesel 2.0L TDI I-4 with 140 hp and 238 lb.-ft. (323 Nm) of torque.

VW executives expect drivers will gravitate toward the 2.5L I-5, available only with an automatic transmission and less expensive than the other trims.

While competent, the base engine is the least fun to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway and the twisty Latigo Canyon Road.

On these undulating byways, the 2.5L works hard (and makes a bit too much noise) getting the Beetle up to speed, weighted down by the extra reinforcement to the A- and B-pillars. VW also bolstered the roof cross-member and lower body-side members for added safety.

Our test drive yields 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km), just over the 21/27 mpg (11.2-8.7 L/100 km) on the window sticker.

VW’s secret weapon may be the 2.0L TDI.

Several new diesel engines arrive in the U.S. in 2013, and all of them will be gunning for VW’s stout and refined 2.0L TDI, which won three Ward’s 10 Best Engines trophies from 2009 to 2011.

In the new Beetle Convertible, the diesel powertrain, available with both 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions, delivers the more favorable driving experience. With a $27,895 base price, the TDI carries a premium of nearly $3,000 over the 2.5L Beetle droptop.

The TDI uses electric power steering while the 2.5L gasoline engine is paired with conventional hydraulic power steering.

We average 35.6 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) in the TDI, close to VW’s estimated combined city/highway 28/37 mpg (8.4-6.4 L/100 km) average.

The Bug droptop is still a looker. With the lid up, the flatter roof and lower profile make the car more masculine.

VW adds three decade-specific trims to the 2.5L I-5, another nod to sales expectations for that model. A ’50s model features a black exterior and tan interior; a ’60s package is painted denim blue; and the ’70s trim is brown – somewhere down the color wheel from harvest gold.

Interior cues carry over from the Beetle coupe, which earned a Ward’s 10 Best Interiors trophy in 2012 for successfully blending retro styling with modern gadgetry.

With 7.1 cu.-ft. (201 L) of cargo volume, it easily beats the Mini Cooper convertible for weekenders with extra luggage. The Beetle Convertible also tops the Fiat 500 in passenger volume and front-row space. Back-seat passengers will be cramped, unless they are children.

The top can be raised or lowered on the fly, below 31 mph (50 km/h). But above that speed, the top will stop moving altogether until the driver pulls over.

The Beetle Convertible might woo some Mini or 500 cabrio buyers with its competitive pricing and diesel option, but its biggest rival may be the upscale Volkswagen Eos hardtop convertible.

VW executives acknowledge Eos sales haven’t been up to par and that two convertibles on dealer lots may cause some in-fighting.

But forced to choose between the two, the more stylish and practical Bug appears the winner.

afoley@wardsauto.com

'13 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible
Vehicle type 2-door front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger convertible
Engine 2.0L Turbo DOHC I-4; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 140 hp @ 4,000 rpm
Torque 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) @ 1,750 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 81 x 95.5
Compression ratio 16.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 100 ins. (254 cm)
Overall length 168.4 ins. (427.8 cm)
Overall width 71.2 ins. (180.8 cm)
Overall height 58.0 ins. (147.3 cm)
Curb weight 3,340 lbs. (1,515 kg)
Base price $27,895 ($28,995 as tested)
Fuel economy 28/37 mpg (8.4-6.4L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Fiat 500c, Mini Cooper, Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang convertibles
Pros Cons
Diesel improves fuel economy Interior a bit too retro?
Peppy at top speeds Don’t try lowering top while moving
You can take all your bags You can’t take all your friends