When you have to choose between a car's trim levels, the typical differences are the amount of goodies that come standard. Go up the line, get more goodies. So when an automaker does something different -- and fun -- with its trim levels, it's worth a closer look. Volkswagen's 2016 Beetle Dune is one such example. Its unique look sets it off from the rest of the Beetle line while having many of the features of other new Beetles and yet, offers more than you would expect given its reasonable price.

Rational Dune Buggy

The Beetle Dune was inspired by Baja Bugs from the 1960s and 1970s. These were old-school, air-cooled VW Beetles that were modified for off-road racing. As cool as the Baja Bugs look, though, living with them on a day-to-day basis wouldn't be all that great. The ride, noise levels, addition of a roll cage and, in some cases, lack of windows and body panels would make things unpleasant while sitting in traffic. However, the Baja Bug inspired the much more civilized Beetle Dune's style and stance.

Like the Baja Bug from back in the day, the Beetle Dune starts off with the same bones as a regular Beetle. Available as a coupe or convertible in white, black or Sandstorm Yellow, the Beetle Dune comes with VW's 170-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbo four and 6-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is a respectable 25 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway.

A Throwback With Style

The Dune doesn't have as much ground clearance as a Baja Bug, but it does sit almost half an inch taller than other Beetles and has a wider track. Our yellow tester had a black honeycomb grille surrounded by aluminum, with a skid plate running underneath the front. Nice retro touches include the addition of running boards and black wheel arches. These make the car look muscular and '70s cool. Finishing off the Dune are groovy black "DUNE" graphics just above the running boards, and a rear spoiler.

The exterior's hue continues inside as an accent color, with shiny yellow trim pieces on the doors and dash, a nice contrast to the black and silver seen throughout. There are also yellow rings within the gauges and yellow stitching on the black steering wheel, center storage bin, parking brake and shifter. The Dune's seats are gray surrounded by black, with yellow contrast stitching and piping. This interior design is fun and cheery and while we're not sure we'd still enjoy the yellow dash panels over time, the look is charming and unique. (Black or white Dunes use black dash and door panels instead of yellow.)

Driving the Dune

We heard we were going to drive the VW Beetle Dune in what would seem to be the perfect setting: Las Vegas. Located in the Mojave Desert, this is a city that for decades has been used as the start or finish to a variety of off-road races. Before arriving, daydreams of kicking up rooster tails of dirt as we carved corners in the dirt under a blazing blue sky in the hot desert sun vanished once we saw the weather reports calling for rain, and a chance of snow. Oh well.

Yet the drive gave us a good opportunity to try out the Beetle Dune, despite the inclement weather. We drove pre-production models, which felt nicely finished and nearly ready for production. The Dune's 1.8T is the base Beetle engine, but this is an excellent powerplant, maybe one of the best "base" units out there. It isn't underpowered and the transmission is a nice match for it. The lack of available all-wheel drive will make it tough to take the Dune off-road. The only gripe, and it's a minor one, was a slight lag from a stop when lightly squeezing the throttle. Handling was sporty and fun, the ride firm but pleasant. We found the steering to be communicative. The Dune did well in heavy rain and light snow, even alerting us when road temperatures could mean a chance of ice.

The Dune benefits from updates to the entire Beetle line for 2016, such as the availability of Park Distance Control, and standard (on the coupe) Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a rearview camera. The control center is VW's MIB II infotainment center, operated through a 6.3-inch screen. The system is much more intuitive than past VW systems, and it's easy to connect a smartphone to use Apple CarPlay and Pandora. Our coupe also came with the Technology Package, which added push-button start, dual-zone climate control and other handy features.

How Much?

While this isn't nearly as attention-getting or as extreme as a real Baja Bug, the Dune is a way to get a Beetle that has its own signature look. And unlike the Baja Bugs of the past, the Beetle Dune doesn't sacrifice the car's practicality. We expect the coupe to go on sale around March 2016, with the convertible arriving in the fall. Coupe pricing will start at $24,815 ($23,995 plus $820 destination), and add-ons include a $1,695 Technology Package and a $795 Lighting Package.


 

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