2012 Volkswagen Beetle 2.5 L vs. 2012 Mazda MX-5 Miata Special Edition: A spring fling showdown.
Prices: The Volkswagen starts at $24,975 as tested (it was a preproduction model); the Mazda was $32,020 (no options).
Conventional wisdom: Cute … and a little girlie.
Marketer's pitch: The Beetle: "Still turns heads. Just faster." The Mazda: "Thrills through all six senses."
Reality: Two different approaches to a fun step back in time.
Retro showdown: The introduction of the Beetle last spring made me long for cars of yore. I decided to take on some small, fun convertibles as a comparison, including the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500C. But one that had never made it to my driveway was the MX-5 Miata.
Lo and behold, the Miata and the Beetle landed at Driver's Seat Manor for a side-by-side comparison during March's warm spell. Just in time for readers' warm-weather shopping.
Aiming for male buyers: Everything about the Beetle's redesign is aimed at appealing to men. It's bigger, stouter, and less wifty looking. And though it took a while to grow on me, I like it much better than the previous incarnation.
Mazda has long since added MX-5 to the Miata name to give it a more macho sound. And the black wheels and stouter jaw gave the test car a tougher look. But I prefer the classic look of the plain, old Miata.
The lowdown: The Miata is small. If you've never been in one, it's smaller than you think. It's smaller than it looks. With the top down, it comes up to mid-thigh.
Sturgis Kid 3.0 and I spotted a Camry while trying out the Miata, and realized the Camry looks very tall in comparison. And the lithe 17-year-old also laughed heartily whenever she watched me get in the Driver's Seat. (She's still grounded.)
Conversely, the Beetle is bigger than you imagine. It's bigger than any of last year's retro contestants — the Mini and the Fiat — way bigger than the original Beetle, and even slightly bigger than the old New Beetle.
Inside: But the Beetle still has retro touches. The universal VW dashboard gauge-pod features simple and clear white letters on a black background. The Beetle gets body-matching plastic dash panels that evoke the original metal one.
The MX-5 Miata interior is a beauty and certainly retro, but I was overwhelmed by having absolutely nowhere to put anything. My bag? In the trunk. A little cabinet behind the seats? Hardly enough room for a couple CDs. And my knees? Really no place for them. The Miata is a toy.
On the road: But a darn fun toy. Put the top down and take in some scenery. The Miata makes even the wilds of Lower Merion seem like a great ride. The six-speed transmission has nice, close shifts, and the clutch is comfortable and easy to work. But I didn't get the "one with the road" feeling of the Mini Cooper.
The Beetle won't let you put the top down (yet) as a convertible, which has been postponed until next year. But it's still a lot of fun to drive. I expected it to feel like the Jetta, but the shorter chassis and the absence of a big trunk gives it a real boost over its four-door sibling. And the Jetta is no slouch.
Sound: The Miata disappointed on two sonic levels. Its engine runs a bit on the buzzy- fly side, and the Bose sound system just didn't have what it takes to overcome it or provide crisp top-down tunes.
The Beetle's Fender system really cranks. And its engine tune is a pleasant one.
In the back: The Beetle is a two-plus-two, meaning it has just two seats in the back with a large console in the middle. But Sturgis Kids 1.0 and 4.0 enjoyed some time back there without complaint.
Tough view: Looking out from convertibles can be a tough proposition with the top up, and the Miata is no exception. The lack of a second window adds to the problem, and the small side mirrors don't help.
Visibility in the Beetle is great.
Fuel economy: This was, strangely enough, identical. Both the MX-5 Miata and the Beetle served up 28 m.p.g. I drove them on a mix of highways and country and city roads, all of it quite spirited.
Where they're built: Puebla, Mexico, for the Beetle; Hiroshima, Japan, for the Mazda.
How they're built: The MX-5 Miata gets top marks from Consumer Reports for reliability. The Beetle has no track record of its own yet, but the Golf is the only VW model to garner above-average ratings. The rest of the lineup falls in the middling or below category.
In the end: If you're looking for sheer retro pleasure and don't need any space or practicality, the rear-wheel-drive MX-5 Miata is a whole lot of fun.
But the Beetle offers a fun overall package in a front-wheel-drive hatchback. I look forward to the introduction of a TDI (diesel) version in August, and the 2013 convertible early next year. This time around, the convertible will also come as a TDI version — which ought to put the "fun" into "functional."